1999 was an amazing year for film, highlighted by the likes of The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, Fight Club and American Beauty. In the midst of this, however, was a little gem by the name of Magnolia that mainstream audiences largely overlooked. Despite the star presence of Tom Cruise and strong critical acclaim, it managed to gross only $22 million at the box office. Now, thanks to home video, Magnolia continues to meet viewers willing to embark on its redemptive journey.
The story follows a large cast of characters from the San Fernando Valley over the course of one seemingly random day. Most are not particularly nice people, some are in fact downright despicable, but are deep down looking for some sort of forgiveness, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Among them are Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), in the midst of teaching a crude seminar on how to get women to sleep with you, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), Frank’s father who is on his deathbed, Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore), Earl’s young wife who now realizes she actually loves him and not his money, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a game show host who just found out he is dying from cancer, Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters), his estranged, drug addicted daughter, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a boy genius currently on the game show hosted by Jimmy, and Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former child quiz show winner whose life is now falling apart.
The two characters that serve as the moral center are Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a Christian police officer who has fallen for Claudia, and Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a male nurse taking care of Earl who is trying to track down Frank before Earl dies. Magnolia quickly jumps from character to character and story to story, but there are two themes at its core similarly found in orthodox theology – the need for grace and forgiveness, and things are not simply a matter of coincidence.
Most of the characters are shown leading empty lives, drowning in a sea of depression, sex, profanity, drugs, robbery, suicide and/or broken relationships. In a pivotal moment halfway through the film, the characters break out in song and sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” ending on the line, “No, it’s not gonna stop till you wise up, so just give up.” Their lives were a mess, with no hope of redemption on the horizon, but then the song comes in. “Just give up” isn’t about hopelessness. It’s about admitting you can’t save yourself, or anyone else for that matter, by your own volition.
All signs point to their damnation but then divine intervention steps in, or rather rains down in the form of frogs. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson cleverly has foreshadowed this fulfillment of Exodus 8:2 throughout the movie, as references to the numbers eight and two can be seen on billboards, a hanged man’s chest, a weather forecast, mug shots, a blackjack hand and even in the shape of an electrical cord.
The raining frogs do end up giving second chances to several of the characters, even preventing one from killing himself, and symbolize the impossible is possible. When you think about it, it makes no logical sense why God would want to save us after all the horribleness we have done, and yet that is the beauty of grace – it doesn’t have to make sense. All we have to do is give up and accept His improbable gift made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross.
The film is also bookended by a narrator and short clips that show how events previously thought to be disparate are connected and happened for a reason, even when it never appeared to be the case. Anderson suggests there is some kind of point and orchestration to these arbitrary incidents, and while he doesn’t come out and say exactly what that is, it can be inferred as Providence.
Even though Magnolia packs a powerful message, it is not for everybody. Some may be put off by its R-rated content and constant raw language, which are used to highlight just how unsavory these people are and how unlikely it is for them to find redemption. Others may also be discouraged by its three-hour length, although it is never boring, and its multitude of characters and weird events, which could be confusing to many. This is not a film for people who only like easygoing, dumb-downed entertainment. Thinking is required.
Another one of its shortcomings some might find frustrating is Anderson never provides easy answers or explicitly endorses Christianity. But then again, that wasn’t his point to begin with. The film asks some tough questions, gives the viewer a lot to consider, and leaves the rest up to you. Movies shouldn’t be preachy, nor should they be afraid to probe and get people rethinking a previously held belief.
As Will Macy’s character says at the end, “I really do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.” Magnolia is filled with similar scenes that could be great discussion starters. If a movie can engage its audience when confronted by beauty and truth, then it is a success. God can use anything, even a movie, to work in people’s lives.