IMDB #221 Magnolia

Hey, champ. Life got ya down? Feel like one is the loneliest number you could ever do? Then take a morose, twisting ride with me through Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 Magnolia. Watch out for plot-centered coincidences, life’s inherent misery, and spontaneous Aimee Mann sing alongs.

And frogs. Mind the frogs.

The Key Players:

P. T. Anderson, as he likes to be known, will be appearing on my seemingly life-spanning countdown at least one more time (There Will Be Blood), and perhaps more (since he’ll finish a film or two before I finish this project). An Oscar nominated director and writer, he’s well on his way to a Kubrickian reputation for deliberate pacing and sophisticated wide-angle shots- though he seems to care a lot more about people than Kubrick ever did, if that makes any sense.

The cast is a large ensemble that most notably includes Tom Cruise, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but also features the talents of Anderson regulars like Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, and of course Filliam H. Muffman.

Not enough? There are cameos by Alfred Molina, Patton Oswalt, Ricky Jay, Thomas Jane (barely), and there are cranky old dudes like Jason Robards and Phillip Baker Hall.

Plus, and I can’t stress this enough, a metric ton of frogs.

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The Story:

Magnolia opens with three brief stories of odd coincidences- a man is murdered near Greenberry Hill by three men named Green, Berry, and Hill. A man assaults a blackjack dealer, then two days later accidentally scoops up the same dealer in a water tank to be dumped on a forest fire, killing the man and later committing suicide in shock and guilt. A young man loads the rifle his parents threaten each other with when they fight, then six days later jumps off the roof- there’s a net to catch him, but the rifle accidentally discharges right as he passes his own window, and his parents are charged with his death (with himself listed as an accomplice).

So these three very specific coincidences set the theme: random coincidental things can happen, and then you die. Things featured among the myriad plotlines in Magnolia: two old men dying of terminal illnesses and full of regret, past molestation, getting struck by lightning, neglectful parents, crippling loneliness, rampant misogynism, unrequited love, car crashes, and suicide attempts.

To briefly sketch it out, with the connections in tow: Robards plays a television magnate on his deathbed, desperately miserable about abandoning his first wife and son. His current trophy wife (Moore), who had married him for his money, actually grew to care about him and turns to pills out of guilt over past infidelity. His live-in nurse (Hoffman), having grown attached to the old man, tries desperately to get in contact with his estranged son (Cruise), who’s become a sleazy self-help guru for men with issues that want the ‘secret’ to scoring chicks. Meanwhile, one of Robards’ shows is taping- What Do Kids Know? a Quiz Show style thing that pits a team of precocious brainiacs against adult guests- the main, erudite kid that normally answers all the questions wets his pants during the taping of the show and loses his cool, leading to confrontations with his exploitative father. The host of the show (Hall) is secretly dying of cancer, and trying to reconcile with his coke-head daughter (Melora Walters), who goes on an awkward date with an idealistic but cloddish policeman (Reilly) who loses his own gun and is so lonely he narrates his own COPS style show to no one at all.

Uh, that’s mostly it? No wait- Macy plays an adult former quiz kid champion whose life is in financial shambles, who wants to get braces to be just like a hunky bartender named Brad he’s in love with but rarely speaks to.

The Artisticness:

Suffice to say, Magnolia needs a lot of time to get it’s plot all together, even though it takes place over one night. A large part of the film’s inspiration comes from the work of Aimee Mann- her cover of Harry Nilsson's “One” plays over the credits- multiple original songs punctuate key moments throughout the rest, including a scene in which everybody breaks character for one somber moment and SINGS part of “Wise Up.” As well as the Oscar-nominated “Save Me” accompanying the film’s final scene.

I was struck, watching it again, the relatively breathless pace of the film- after the initial rush to introduce everyone it slows down a little, but only enough to get to the next crisis. I like the theme of interconnectivity, but I didn’t really see why we need three very extreme examples of it to tie in to the lives of a dozen or so loosely connected people. Perhaps the coincidence is that they all have a crisis in their lives on the same night.


Well- Cruise goes to see Robards, though he despises him, and has an Oscary scene yelling and crying at him. Moore attempts suicide but a passing boy calls 911. Macy tries to rob his former employer, but changes his mind and goes back to return the money. Hall admits to his wife that he may have molested their daughter, she leaves him, and he tries the suicide route as well, with a gun. Reilly and Walters’ date goes reasonably well for two messed up people, but she kisses him and runs away.

And then frogs fall from the sky. Thousands of them. Yeah. This leads to Macy falling off a telephone pole and smashing his teeth, but Reilly is passing by and helps him. Walters’ mother crashes her car but makes it to her daughter’s apartment, where they are reunited. Robards dies and Cruise goes to help Moore in the hospital. A frog falling through the skylight hits Hall’s hand as he pulls the trigger, but his house does light on fire- his fate is unknown. Everyone else just looks out at the falling frogs in wonder, as the disgraced whiz kid from the game declares “This happens. This is something that happens.” (you know, in case you were wondering). Right as the frogs end, Reilly’s lost gun falls from the sky as well (?), and he later goes back to Walters and declares his intention to be good to her and honest as “Save Me” plays us out. Curtains.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I was definitely underwhelmed the first time I saw Magnolia, but with repeat viewings (and seeing PTA’s other work), I really admire it as a piece of singular vision and storytelling. Even if the particular ‘point’ of such a story is unclear, I enjoy it each time- it’s dense enough to be more that just a “miserable things happening to miserable people” movie, which nine times out of ten puts me off.

So much as I love frogs (and dislike even fictional mass weather-pattern frog genocide), I’m saying higher (just as saying that Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights should really be on this countdown. Oh well.)

The Legacy:

People certainly seemed to think, at the time, that this would be the role for Tom Cruise that Pulp Fiction was for John Travolta, but his career has taken a few more turns in the decade since.

With all due respect to Robert Altman, Magnolia’s certainly my default reference for the interconnected style of storytelling, if only it explicitly states that that interconnectivity is the point (Tarantino films are also a good benchmark- Crash? No.).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

You know what? I bet the whole sing along thing (where according to Janet Maslin of the NYT Magnolia “begins to self-destruct spectacularly”) works better out of context:

It did put me off the first time, but I’ve since gotten way more into Aimee Mann.

Leftover Thoughts:

-My least favorite parts of the film: 1. The producers of a game show featuring kids that’s been running for THIRTY YEARS not knowing what to do when a kid wets his pants. 2. Jason Robards’ long, interminably monologue about regret and life and stuff that’s surely very meaningful and important, but he’s the only character that doesn’t get time to earn any sympathy.

-Frogs raining from the sky DOES really happen, but everything I read on the interblags maintains that its much smaller frogs and would not likely happen in North America.

-Exodus 8:2 is about a plague of frogs, and the number 82 recurs in the film a half dozen times. Make of that what you will- I’m not too up on the Bible, so I prefer to not try and make connections I don’t mind not looking for (the show Kings on NBC is fantastic without any references). Still, I’ll put the Bible on my “to read” shelf on that facebook app sometime.

-Magnolia is one of many films scored by Jon Brion, my favorite film composer ever.

-This film is pretty light on magnolias, and flowers on the whole.

3 Response to "IMDB #221 Magnolia"

  1. Alastair says:

    I just found this blog through IMDB, and just wanted to say that I think it's a great idea. I thoroughly enjoyed your review of Magnolia, one of my personal favorites. I thought your style and originality was interesting and it really works well! I look forward to some more reviews. (can you do Into the Wild early!)

    Alastair- that's music to my ears, that is. Thanks for the kind words.

    Into The Wild is still some months away at number 147, I'm afraid, but I'll certainly get there!

    Alastair says:

    It's a pleasure and I love finding people giving their own thoughtful reviews on the net as opposed to the myriad of 'copy and paste' blogs these days. Also, on the third paragraph of the 'The Story' I think you meant to right 'miserable' instead of 'miserably' when talking about Robson?

    Keep up the good work though!

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