“This is not just something that happened,” the narrator says in voice over narration during the prologue to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). “This cannot be ‘one of those things.’ This, please, cannot be that… this was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.” In P.T. Anderson’s world, strange things do happen all the time. Human life is seemingly accidental, suspended in a state of organized chaos, but, try as we might, we have no bearing on that organization. Every action has a consequence, unfortunately not always an equal and opposite reaction. In Magnolia, Anderson’s operatic, multi-stranded meditation on fate, coincidence, life, death, family, loss, and love, over a dozen characters have their existence interrupted by the hectic, arbitrary forces of the universe as they embark on a moral odyssey through their past, present, and future. The writer/director interweaves the stories of these disparate, desperate people over a twenty-four hour period in the San Fernando Valley, creating a haunting mosaic of American life through a series of interposed comic-tragic vignettes, each one a poignant portrait of human and urban malaise.
***This is an in-depth analysis of Magnolia, and it contains spoilers.
Organized in three sections, each marked off by a weather card reporting change, and bookended by a prologue and an epilogue, Magnolia, whose multi-petaled narrative runs over three hours long, sets the darkly funny tone and submerges us into its universe from the first opening shots. Racing along at breakneck speed, the narrated prologue tells three stories of chance and coincidence: the hanging of three men—named Joseph Green, Daniel Hill, and Stanley Berry—in 1911 for the murder of a man in Greenberry Hill, London, filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, in grainy black-and-white reminiscent of early one-reelers; an early eighties scuba diving casino employee dying of a heart attack caused by a pilot picking him out of a lake and dumping him on a fire, who played cards at his table and committed suicide over the guilt of killing him; and the story of Sydney Barringer, a young man who tried to kill himself by jumping off his building without realizing a safety net would save his life a few floors down, only to get accidently shot by his mother with the shotgun he had loaded in hopes his parents would just kill each other during one of their fights. “And I would like to think this was all a matter of chance,” the narrator concludes, but the truth is he believes some things happen for a reason.
Before we have time to recover from these anecdotes, Anderson assaults us with an exuberant, bravado montage that introduces and inextricably links all of the characters, as Aimee Mann croons, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Two can be as bad as one; it’s the loneliest number since the number one.” Frank T.J. Mackie, an infomercial self-help guru selling male sexual power, advertises his new book, “Seduce and Destroy,” on a television screen in a bar where a lonely Claudia picks up a middle aged man. In her apartment, while they’re having sex, the camera pans to a family picture reflecting another TV set broadcasting a documentary about her father, game show host Jimmy Gator. A dedicated family man—according to his celebrity image—he is seen in the next shot screwing a young woman in his office. The screen dissolves into the quiz show “What Do Kids Know?,” and then moves on to leading contestant Stanley getting ready for school as his dad verbally batters him and rushes him along. Again, we get a shot of a television screen, this time returning to 1968, when sad, lonely, “former quiz kid” Donnie Smith still had potential. Here, there is an apparent break in continuity as we are brought alongside the deathbed of cancer patient Earl Partridge, where nurse Phil Parma keeps watch as Partridge’s agitated young wife Linda runs errands.
Then we settle on John C. Reilly’s Jim Kurring, who is checking his dating service message as the chairs surrounding him at the table form inescapable barriers. The constant optimist, the poster on his wall reads “Determination” as he lifts weights, even if Venetian blinds cast their long shadows across the room. At the police station, he sits in the back, the only man in the room not seated next to someone else, and the windowpane in the background forms a huge cross behind him, both a reference to his entrapment and a precursor to the film’s climax of Biblical proportions. “It’s not an easy job,” Jim says. “I get a call on the radio—dispatch; it’s bad news. And it stinks. But this is my job, and I love it because I wanna do well. In this life and in this world I wanna do well and I wanna help. And I might get twenty bad calls a day, but, if one time I can help someone, make a save, correct the wrong or right a situation, then I’m a happy cop. And [as] we move through this life, we should try to do good.” Anderson’s message comes through as early as the first lines of spoken dialogue. The fact that Jim is making this whole speech to himself in the car is just another demonstration of the character’s loneliness and need for love, his desperate need for a connection. This is a necessity that all of the characters feel, and one which Anderson tries to resolve.
A later scene shows Donnie going into a bar, only to sit down at a booth next to a solitaire machine—of all games—as the camera quickly cants, setting everything into a rather askew perspective, one that mirrors the character’s own illusions about who he is and who he wants to be. Magnolia, then, becomes a tearful, heartbreaking ode to suffering, alienation, and pain, and to the difficult physical and psychological journey the characters have to undertake in order to overcome their loneliness and isolation. In a movie that is equal parts creeping despair and saving grace, guilt and sorrow must be met with the chance for redemption, for forgiveness, and the possibility to connect or reconnect with others.
It is not coincidental that almost all of the characters are shown, at some point or other, alone in their cars. As residents of Los Angeles, they are forced to contain themselves in these structures of metal and glass that cut them off from the rest of humanity, when all they are longing to do is reach out and touch another person. As Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004), another multi-threaded tapestry of L.A. life, implies, in other cities you can walk, you brush past people, but in Los Angeles, you lose that sense of touch, perhaps even to such an extent that you have to crash into others in order to feel something.
The limitations of Magnolia’s characters, however, are not merely physical. It is the invisible walls they have built around themselves that are the hardest to tear down. Most of the members of Anderson’s ensemble have created certain barriers based on the image they want to project to the outside world. They are all willing and eager participants in a game of showmanship and illusion. These characters are playing a role that fits narrative they think their life should follow: Linda pretended to love Earl and married him for his money, only to fall in love with her dying husband and be consumed with guilt and a dependency on prescription drugs; Claudia tries to keep it together and act like everything is okay even as she is sinking deeper and deeper into cocaine addiction, and cannot cope with her once sexually abusive father; Jimmy adopts not only the public persona of cheerful game show host, but also the deceitful role of good father and husband in private; Stanley’s father doesn’t even try to pretend he cares about his kid, acknowledging he sees him as nothing more than a meal ticket (“Let’s make some fucking money here people”). All of Magnolia’s seemingly secure, in control characters are actually vulnerable, needy people beneath their carefully constructed veneer.
Although Robert Altman’s films might appear to be the chief influences behind Anderson’s movie, Sydney Lumet’s acerbic satire of the television industry in Network (1976) is also relevant. The prevalence of television sets and screens in general in Anderson’s film acts as a metaphor for the artificiality and façade of this universe that is so immersed in popular and television culture that it becomes difficult to tell what is real anymore. Almost all of the characters are in some way linked to the television industry, and even those who aren’t have been irreparably affected and altered by it. As Jimmy prepares for the show in the second act of the film, we get a shot of the red curtain just seconds away from parting, the back of his head in the foreground, as the producers do a countdown and the spotlights are adjusted. The sound is overlaid with images form the other strands of the narrative: Mackie, Jim, Donnie, Linda, even the woman Jim arrested in the beginning of the movie; all are seen over the frantic noises of a studio getting ready to air.
Donnie is experiencing the failure of early promise and childhood success; he cannot, in his adult life as a drunken sales manager, live up to the potential he displayed as a child on Jimmy’s quiz show. He had his life taken away from him and his money stolen by his parents, left only with regret, bitterness, and a longing for what-could-have-been. We see the same thing happening in the present with Stanley, who delivers some of the most frighteningly authentic lines of the entire film, when he breaks down on live television and questions his audience while starring directly at the camera, which slowly zooms closer to his distraught face and sad blue Dickensian eyes: “This isn’t funny. This isn’t cute. See, the way we’re looked at—‘cause I’m not a toy; I’m not a doll—the way we’re looked at because you think we’re cute, because… what? I’m made to feel as a freak because I answer questions and because I’m smart….” The half-obscured wings in the background, the logo of the show against a blue wall, form a symbol of twisted, trampled inoocence as vivid and vibrant as the chilling clarity of the boy's warped childhood. Tom Cruise’s character is another example of a person who creates and immerses himself in a public persona that hides a deep pain and vulnerability. Frank struts as he proudly proclaims, “I’m Batman. I’m Superman. I’m a fucking action hero!” With his pants around his ankles, this act is a transparent attempt to pretend he is confident and assertive, and to perpetuate an illusion—or perhaps delusion.
In sharp contrast stand Jim and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Phil, who, either because it’s their job, or because they can’t help it, or both, are caregivers. They try to do the right thing not because it will make them look good, but because it is the right thing. Phil oversteps the boundary between caring for the dying man and getting emotionally involved in his life in helping him find Frank. Anderson self-consciously and unashamedly uses the cliché of reuniting the father and son, but he does it because he believes these things actually take place in real life. As Phil says, “This is the scene in the movie when the guy is trying to get ahold of the long lost son, you know, but this is that scene. This is that scene, and I think they have those scenes in the movies because they’re true, you know, because they really happen.” Similarly, Reilly’s cop is so nice he is comical, but he pulls off the nearly impossible feat of making decency funny without making himself seem like a fool. “Sometimes people need a little help,” he soliloquizes. “Sometimes they need to be forgiven, and sometimes they need to go to jail (…) What can we forgive? [That is the] tough part of the job, tough part of walking down the street.” In short, the tough part of being a decent human being.
Throughout the course of the movie, all of the characters need to decide what they can and cannot forgive. “And the book says, ‘we might be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.’” As hard as the characters try to forget the past, it has this weird tendency of catching up with them. Frank proudly and loudly declares that, “Facing the past is an important way to not move forward” and “The most useless thing is that which is behind me,” but his past certainly disagrees. It is only by owning up to his past that he can move forward. Although he truly hates his father for leaving him and his sick mother, he can’t help but love him as well, and in the end even shows concern about Linda when she is in the hospital. Whereas the director’s previous film, Boogie Nights (1997), was all about the family we make for ourselves, Magnolia is about the family we’re stuck with, for better or worse. Generational and familial conflicts abound in Anderson’s work, from Earl and Frank, through Stanley and his father, to Jimmy and Claudia. These parents rightfully earn the resentment of their children, and we can only hope Stanley can still fix his relationship with his father, although when he stands up to him and says, “You need to be nicer to me,” his only response is, “Go to bed.”
Just as Donnie acts as a counterpart to Stanley, so, too, are Earl and Jimmy similar. Both have betrayed or abandoned their children, both have cheated on their wives, both are dying of cancer. Earl’s morphine-induced slumber and few moments of clarity are filled with guilt and regret. “All that bullshit is true,” he professes. “Find a good one and hold on and all that.” The search for true love seems daunting in a milieu filled with so much pretense, insincerity, and hostility, but some, like Jim and Claudia, succeed, even if they have to make a deal to be truthful “and maybe we can get through the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.” Others, like Donnie, fail miserably. He wants “real love, the kind of love that makes you feel that intangible joy in the pit of your stomach like a bucket of acid and nerves running around making you hurt and happy, and all over, you’re head over heels.” This is the love he is willing to give, as he proclaims in an embarrassing confession to the surly bartender that is the object of his affection: “My name is Donnie Smith and I have lots of love to give!” All of the characters have love to give, if only they could open themselves up and break free of the barriers they have built.
The moment of epiphany comes late in the third act of the movie, when the action is interrupted by an almost surrealist break in narrative. The sequence starts with Claudia singing along to Aimee Mann’s beautiful ballad “Wise Up,” only to have all of the characters join in, admitting, “It’s not gonna stop till you wise up.” The director has always placed a very strong emphasis on the music of his films; the songs on the soundtrack directly comment on and counterpoint the action of Magnolia, while longtime collaborator Jon Brion’s orchestral score is always present, setting the mood throughout.
Anderson uses his signature long uninterrupted takes and moving camera in perfect coordination to Brion’s majestic symphonic score, which has no individual themes for the characters, instead employing just one ominous, repetitive, universal musical motif that unifies the action and unites the characters. The backstage scene on the game show set, although not as lengthy as the opening to Boogie Nights, is an extraordinary, impressive use of traveling shots, as Robert Elswit’s camera follows one person and then the next through the labyrinthine setting of long, narrow corridors and in and out of offices. The tracking and use of steadicams create a sense of unity and interconnectedness, as the attention shifts seamlessly from one person to the next and back again. The long takes introduce an element of stability otherwise absent from these lives. When Jim first visits Claudia’s apartment about a disturbance, she offers him coffee and the camera remains stationary in the kitchen as they walk in and out. The focus, in that scene, is not on movement and dynamism—Claudia has quite enough of that all on her own as she constantly fidgets, paces, sways, and nods—but on constancy and calm. In each other, the characters have found peace, and the camera relinquishes its nervous energy just as we hope Claudia will relinquish hers.
Weather plays a pivotal role throughout the movie as a reminder that there is something bigger out there, over which we have no control. All plans and ambitions can be undermined by sudden, astonishing acts of the universe. The director, like Altman in Short Cuts (1993), uses a natural event to bring the characters together. Whereas Altman ended his film with an earthquake, Anderson takes it a step further and gives us frogs falling from the sky. He dares us not to believe it, and just before the climax, zooms in on Claudia’s painting and its caption, which reads “But it did happen.” All of Magnolia’s narrative strands find a tentative resolution during this sequence; the rain, an act of God, becomes a gateway to healing and forgiveness. Anderson knows that the calm before the storm is not nearly as important as the clearing after, adding an epilogue in which all is, if not resolved, then at least gradually getting there. The last image we are left with is one of unbridled hope: Claudia slowly breaks into a smile as Jim’s lines are obscured by the music on the soundtrack. His words are not important; what matters is the effect they have on Claudia, and Aimee Mann once again says it all: “Come on and save me; if you could save me from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone.”