Watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 movie, Magnolia, for the second time confirmed that this is one of the real masterpieces of modern cinema.
After the critical and financial success of Anderson’s low budget ‘Boogie Nights’, New Line Cinema gave him carte blanche to do what he wanted for his next project. He rightly realised that this was a Citizen Kane moment that was unlikely to be repeated. He abandoned any notion of restraint and gave expression to the blooming of ideas that make up the multi-faceted drama which is epic in scope and full of memorable scenes. His subjects are BIG issues like dying, love, betrayal, regret, denial , guilt and truth. One of the key themes is expressed by the unknown narrator near the end – “We may be through with the past but the past isn’t through with us”.
There’s a boldness, bordering on recklessness, but it hangs together by the brilliance of the ensemble cast. Tom Cruise is not one of my favourite actors but his exceptional performance as the loathsome self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackay who teaches men how to pick up and ‘tame’ women is riveting.
Anderson’s use of Aimee Mann’s brilliant songs is also highly original in that they are not used as background music but as a key part of the scenes. This is most evident with the song Wise Up where each of the key characters, sing along even Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) on his death bed.
I haven’t the time, and this isn’t the place, for a full plot summary. This is unnecessary too since Wikipedia’s entry does the job admirably and also includes an indispensable map of how all the characters are connected.
I’ll confine this post with what is one of the biggest talking points of the movie in the apocalyptic moment when frogs rain down from the sky. Many see some heavy pseudo -religious message in this although this theory is nipped in the bud by the fact that Anderson says “I didn’t even know it was in the bible when I wrote the script”. He admits, however, that he mischievously added a few Exodus 8-2 references in the movie to mess with the audience’s heads. The full biblical quote here is: “And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me. And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs” .
Religious overtones can also safely be disregarded as nothing in the movie suggests that Godly intervention will help any of his characters. The only possible exception is when police officer Jim Kurring’s (John C.Reilly) prayers for the return of his lost gun are answered (also falling from the sky after the frog storm has ended). This event is more of an in-joke than a suggestion that faith will heal the wounds and smooth out the problems.
The idea for using a plague of frogs actually came from Charles Fort’s non-fiction work of 1919 called ‘The Book of the Damned’ . This investigated strange phenomena like UFOs, weird weather and unexplained disappearances. There is a hypertext edition of this book available online.
The source may be explained but the meaning is left open. My daughter was very frustrated by the fact that none of the characters seem to ask the obvious questions ‘Why and how are frogs falling from the sky?’ I tried to explain that this is a good lesson that in movies, as in life, things happen without there necessarily being a logical explanation. She wasn’t having any of it.
Not surprisingly, online forums are awash with interpretations. The most convincing for me is that the scene represents a cathartic moment that intervenes to break the cycle of doubt and destructiveness all the characters are stuck in.
The enigmatic smile of cocaine addict Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) that closes the movie offers the hope her life, and perhaps the others too, will get back on track to prove there is life after frogs.