Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 magnum opus Magnolia begins with a seemingly silly introduction narrated by Ricky Jay detailing three coincidences, each equally comedic and dark. In one, a boy jumps off of his roof with the intent of suicide, not knowing that a safety net had been installed on his building that night, and yet still dies because his mother shoots a gun (that he loaded the previous night) at his father and misses, hitting his falling body through the window: he is then charged as an accomplice in his own murder. The viewers laugh immediately at how wild the coincidence seems, but soon catch themselves, setting the tone for the majority of the film: somewhat funny but more than anything gloomy due to convoluted and realistically intense relationships.
After this introduction, there is a jumble of conversational quick-cuts forming a strong sense of place, characters, and tension, all set over a din of Aimee Mann’s single “One.” The many interactions are cut short but clear scenes emerge: inspirational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) giving a rousing talk about taming women; old TV producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) dying of cancer, his manic young wife Linda (Julianne Moore) and kind male nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman); depressedly stunted ex-child-star of hit TV show “What Do Kids Know?” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and his many debts; present child star of said show Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) and his oppressive father; host of said show Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and his angry, cocaine-snorting daughter Claudia (Melora Walters); bumbling cop Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) on a case he knows he’ll never solve even when he’s told who did it by a young boy on the scene. Within the first 30 minutes, the separate characters all begin to join one cohesive narrative: though their stories rarely merge and many never interact at all, there is always a thread that can be followed from one to another.
Anderson does a fabulous job creating these overarching relationships, shaping the coincidental and accidental impacts each character has on the lives of the others. For example, when Jimmy Gator nearly faints onstage during the filming of “What Do Kids Know?”, he is too distracted and preoccupied to see the discomfort and defiance in Stanley’s eyes, and he calls Stanley up to the front of the stage. He has no way of knowing that Stanley happened to have just peed his pants because his father would not let him go to the bathroom, and he doesn’t have the energy after his charged interaction with his daughter Claudia (Walters) to even care. Stanley, similarly, has no way of knowing that Gator happens to be dying of cancer. However, Gator refuses to let up because he cannot think of what else to do, and Stanley refuses to go up out of shame and anger. This culminates in the end of his career, and potentially the ruin of Gator’s last episode. These coincidences add up to a tumultuous experience in both of their lives, as do the many others throughout the film.
Anderson brings all the characters together in only two moments, which happen to both be the most absurd in the film. Once is during the height of the tension, where every character is reaching some sort of tortured emotional intensity, and the other is an act of God. The first begins with Claudia, in a loss for words and high out of her mind, playing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” When Mann begins to sing, Claudia does as well, and throughout the course of the song, every character joins in, creating a melancholic chorus of loss. Though scenes like this are often cheesy, this musical number is so purposeful and masterful that it works perfectly: it is the bringing together of everything in a film that is so intentionally scattered; it is the sobbing climax of an already weepingly potent piece of art. It is an impeccably incorporated scene in the film, one made even more impressive when considering Anderson’s young age (28 years) at its debut in 1999.
The second moment of this kind is when, out of nowhere, at a moment of realization and finalization (suicide, divorce, death, etc.) for every character, frogs begin to rain from the sky. This is not simply a smattering of frogs or even a multitude: this is a torrent of frogs, more frogs than could even be imaginable. Earlier in the film there was a moment where a sign was held up emblazoned with the phrase “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite your whole territory with frogs. Exodus 8:2.” This rain of frogs brings about, through one way or another, the conclusion of every plot: the discovery of suicidal Linda, the reunion between Claudia and her mother, the angelic freedom and strength of Stanley, the return of stolen goods by Donnie Smith, etc. Again, a scene that risks over-sentimentality and melodrama but is perfectly used and intentionally placed.
Magnolia is an unforgettable experience and one that will undoubtedly raise a cacophony of pity, love, sadness, and more. It is a contemporary classic that is as stunning intellectually as it is comedically, visually, dramatically, and especially emotionally: a masterpiece by any standards.