The magnolia is a perennial flower: its recurring bloom signals spring’s arrival and the bark of the tree it grows from can be used to treat anxiety and cancer. Magnolia Boulevard is a street that runs through Burbank, California—the media capital of the world, just miles from Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. Neither of these things is explained outright in Magnolia, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 opus, but even without awareness of them, the viewer begins to form an intuitive understanding of how the beauty, complexity, and fragility of a flower may relate to the tapestry of lives on display in the movie.
Magnolia is a young man’s movie. It’s a crinkled, wet valentine to the Valley (San Fernando, where Burbank is located and where the film is set). Anderson was still in his twenties when he made it, and juxtaposed with the mature back half of his filmography to date, it pulses like a drop-kicked dog without a leash. Sometimes it barks off into the unknown with elliptical subplots. Sometimes it chases its own tail, looping back on itself with crescendoing crosscuts. Though it all, hangs a persistent storm cloud of emotion, the kind that enslaves hurt people until they’re liberated by a rain of frogs.
After the success of Boogie Nights, Anderson’s exuberant porn-family film, New Line Cinema gave the young filmmaker carte blanche to make an achingly personal, 3-hour drama with an ensemble cast and the biggest budget of his career. Blame the audience, blame the Internet, blame risk-averse studio executives, but Hollywood’s gatekeepers don’t allow many movies like that to enter the multiplex anymore. In Collateral, Tom Cruise’s steely hitman pegged L.A. as a place that was “too sprawled out, disconnected.” In Magnolia, he plays Frank T.J. Mackey, a misogynistic seduction seminar leader whose story intertwines with that of other characters to form the obverse narrative, whereby everything is interconnected despite the ungainly sprawl.
If Magnolia lacks the formal rigor of Anderson’s monster movie masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, it makes up for it with an abundance of character—or characters, since this is, as mentioned, an ensemble movie. (Magnolia is essentially Anderson’s California answer to Robert Altman’s Nashville). Some of the camerawork might seem flashy if you’re inclined to notice such things, or call attention to itself even if you’re not. Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s lens whip-pans around in houses and settles into Steadicam grooves over the shoulders of people as they come and go in hallways: all “for the sake of momentum,” just like Aimee Mann sings about on the soundtrack.
Mann’s songs, composer Jon Brion’s score, and jukebox selections from artists like Supertramp supercharge the movie with a musical ebb and flow. In lieu of proper chapters, à la a Quentin Tarantino film, the combination of weather updates and music in Magnolia gives it the feeling of a slice-of-life tale that unfolds in meaningful movements, like a concert symphony. The white Honda Civic from Pulp Fiction shows up, and in the background, there are hidden references to Exodus 8:2, lending the movie a quasi-religious import, similar to what Tarantino did with Jules Winnfield’s Ezekiel 25:17 speech.
Lives Connected Through More Than Chance
In this world, the rain of frogs falls on the just and unjust alike. Magnolia understands this all too well: so well, in fact, that at the end of a long day, it interrupts its regularly scheduled weather with a literal frog rain. By then, we’re already well-acquainted with the characters, a teary-eyed mess of people with problems and pent-up feelings, per the Anderson movie norm.
Julianne Moore’s character, Linda Partridge, is the most hysterical of the bunch. Berating judgmental pharmacists for calling her “lady,” Moore plays to the back of the house, almost to the point of satire. Magnolia does have its funny moments, like when a bystander runs up to the window of a car that’s just crashed and instantly recognizes the adult driver as a former whiz kid from an old quiz show. Is Donnie Smith really that famous or is he just living his worst nightmare?
Like Boogie Nights, Magnolia made great use of the latent comic ability of John C. Reilly, years before he started appearing in movies with Will Ferrell. Here, he plays Officer Jim Kurring, a simple, pure-hearted cop who soliloquizes alone in his car about trying to do good as we move through this life. Responding to a noise disturbance puts him in the path of Claudia Wilson (Melora Waters), a tightly wound woman with an abundance of secret cocaine energy.
Claudia can barely hold herself still. She fidgets through the film like someone with all of her nerve endings exposed—but that’s the nature of Magnolia itself. It’s a movie that shows its emotions, big and blubbering, in the hopes of cutting through all the dinner-date prevarications and being seen and recognized by another human (the viewer). When Jim bumbles his way into Claudia’s apartment in his official capacity as a police officer, she’s just had an unwelcome encounter with her estranged father, quiz-show host Jimmy Gator. Philip Baker Hall, who co-starred with Reilly in Anderson’s first feature film, Hard Eight, plays the appropriately named Gator, who begins to resemble disgraced British TV personality Jimmy Savile as the movie progresses (or any one of a number of other outed celebrity sex abusers).
The film goes on and on like this, switching off perspectives and linking the lives of its characters in a chain of loneliness, resentment, regret, and eventual serendipity. One of the contestants on Jimmy’s show, What Do Kids Know?, is Stanley Spector, a child prodigy exploited by his father (the sins of the father being a recurring motif in this and other Anderson films). Stanley just wants to go to the bathroom, but his adult handlers won’t let him because they’re part of the exploitation machine. That’s show business.
Rewatching Magnolia in 2019, seeing Felicity Huffman and her real-life husband, William H. Macy, in the same movie, serves as an unfortunate reminder of this year’s college admissions bribery scandal; but in a weird way, the notion of a misguided parent pulling illegal strings to ensure their child’s future welfare isn’t so far off from Macy’s character, who says he has “lots of love to give” but doesn’t know where to put it. As the grown-up Donnie, he’s the kind of man that bar flies want to avoid because he’s “not only dull, but a cause of dullness in others.”
We can’t all glide effortlessly through this life as gregarious social animals. Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt like your own attempts at connecting or conversing with other people were boring …
Earl Partridge labels his own man-on-a-bed plight boring, but it’s devastating to hear him unspool his regrets as he dies of cancer. Like The Master, part of Magnolia’s rawness encompasses a certain staginess that makes itself felt in the scene transitions. This is the case when it cuts to Earl with his nurse, Phil Parma (the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman), by his bedside. There’s always that moment where you know you’re about to witness a powerful acting showcase.
Robards, known for his memorable roles in Once Upon a Time in the West, All the President’s Men, and other movies, passed away about a year after Magnolia hit theaters, so his performance is imbued with real human frailty. There’s a part, later, where it slides into voiceover with Earl as the movie checks back in on Jimmy Gator, who is also dying of cancer. All we’re left with is the sound of the rain and Earl’s haunted cries and moans. “The biggest regret of my life: I let my love go.” That line gets me every time.
Earl is estranged, too, from his son, the aforementioned Frank T.J. Mackey. At the time, Tom Cruise was undertaking riskier ventures in his career that didn’t involve death-defying stunt work. 1999 was also the year that he donned a Venetian mask and whispered “Fidelio” in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eye Wide Shut. Anderson came to visit him on the set of that movie, and Frank’s entrance music when he first comes on stage for his seminar is the sunrise theme from Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”—a piece indelibly linked with Kubrick, thanks to his utilization of it in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Frank is of a piece with the vampire Lestat in that he isn’t the nicest being. He threatens to kick canines, and as we all know, moviegoers don’t like to see any harm come to dogs. There’s a whole trigger-warning website, DoesTheDogDie.com, devoted to filtering out those kinds of spoilers. Dog is God spelled backwards and God rhymes with Dodd, and is that a coincidence, a matter of dumb chance, or is it all part of some grand design?
If that seems like a non-sequitur, Magnolia is no stranger to those. Posing similar questions about the intervention of fate and how lives intersect, it’s almost stream-of-consciousness in the way it has characters randomly blurting out things like, “It’s a dangerous thing to confuse children with angels,” and, “The book says we may be through with the past but the past isn’t through with us.” I once watched a scene from the movie in a New York seminar with the sibilant title of “Sacred Surprises in Secular Cinema.” Like the enigmatic kid rapper who appears before Jim, telling him he can help him “solve the case,” there’s more to this movie than meets than eye.
Who’s the Real Worm? The Meaning of the Boy’s Rap
The deleted subplot with Orlando Jones sheds more light on what was originally going on with the kid rapper, Dixon, but the explanation is more mundane and having an element of mystery to the movie works in its favor. Listen to Dixon’s lyrics, how he speaks of “presence” and double meanings and a force that bestows gifts. “Think fast, catch me, yo, because I throw what I know with a resonance.” He talks of getting older, “with a chip on your shoulder,” and tells Jim to shut up because he “ain’t no confessor.”
“Try to listen and learn. Check that ego. Come off it, I’m the prophet, the professor, I’m-a teach you about the Worm, who eventually turned to catch wreck with the neck of a long-time oppressor. And he’s running from the devil, but the debt is always gaining, and if he’s worth being hurt, he’s worth bringing pain in. When the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord bring the rain in.”
The real Worm isn’t Jones. Sure, that was his character’s name, but his character was left on the cutting room floor and Magnolia begs to be met at the level where it’s discerned by what’s onscreen. No, the real Worm here is Jimmy Gator, Claudia’s long-time oppressor, who does “catch wreck” via the frog rain. If anyone deserves to be lumped together with the worms and gators and frogs and devils, it’s Jimmy. He’s the predator who roams the showbiz swamp, sticking his head up to smile on TV. He molested his daughter. He definitely brought pain into her life and is “worth being hurt,” so the movie bombs him more violently with frogs than any of the other characters.
Officer Jim, the good Jim, not Jimmy, acts as a guardian angel for Donnie, leaning in over Donnie’s right shoulder as he puts the money he’s stolen from his boss back in the safe at work. Donnie fares better than Jimmy because Jim decides to let him go, noting: “Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that is a very tricky thing on my part, making that call.”
Crafted like an origami flower, rife with salty language and Fortean occurrences, Magnolia is a movie about forgiveness and reconciliation—with ourselves and others. But “what can we forgive?” asks Officer Jim. Clearly, not everything. Yet the healing applications of magnolia bark suggest that forgiveness, when possible, salves the soul.
When the song “Save Me” comes on at the end, and we hear Aimee Mann asked to be saved “from the ranks of the freaks that suspect they can never love anyone,” Claudia looks straight at the camera and finally, her face lights up with a smile. Jim is there, ready to be a guardian angel to her, as he was with Donnie. The sing-along is over. The clouds have parted. Everything will be okay. A perfect way to end.
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