Interconnected characters struggle with love, death and desperation over a long day in Los Angeles culminating with a bizarre weather phenomenon.
Paul Thomas Anderson's debt to Robert Altman blatantly emerges with a scenario - interconnected characters struggle with love, death and desperation over a long day in Los Angeles that ends with a bizarre weather phenomenon - that could be pitched as Short Cuts II.
The tent poles of the story are bedridden TV producer Earl Partridge (Robards) and quiz show host Jimmy Gator (Hall), both of whom have terminal cancer. Earl's dippy second wife Linda (Moore) can't cope, but his devoted nurse Phil (Hoffman) tracks down Earl's estranged son, Frank Mackey (Cruise), who has made a fortune from terrifying seminars that teach men to be sexual predators. Jimmy, gamely trying to hold together one last show, also has an estranged child, cokehead Claudia (Walters), who is alternately grilled and chatted up by lonely cop Jim Kurring (Reilly).
Also floating around are Stanley (Blackman), a quiz kid rebelling against his image, and Donnie (Macy), his grown-up counterpart, whose adult life has been one big disappointment.
The more linear Boogie Nights didn't fumble much throughout a long running time, but this scattershot picture (it even has an anecdotal prologue) frankly sprawls. We are meant to compare and contrast the situations of the two dying men and their extended families (blink and you'll miss the connection between the two), but this sometimes feels like the same story being told twice with cutaways to the next vignette, just as the current one has got interesting.
Cruise, with a sharklike stance, gives a career-best performance as a total bastard (his course is called "Seduce and Destroy") with quotable dialogue ("I'm judging you quietly", "If those dogs come near me, I will drop-kick them"); and Reilly and Walters - valuable utility players who deserve to become superstars - make amazingly fresh and suspenseful the quietly moving business of two of life's losers edging painfully closer.
On a scene by scene basis, it has as much great stuff as any other picture this year.