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Film / Magnolia

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"There is the story of a boy genius, and the game show host, and the ex-boy genius.
There is the story of the dying man, his lost son, and the dying man's wife, and the caretaker.
And there's the story of a mother, and the daughter, and the police officer in love.
And this will all make sense in the end."
The Narrator (Ricky Jay), Trailer

Magnolia is a 1999 drama film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson about dysfunctional people in Los Angeles, partly inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann. The film is known for focusing on a large number of characters through a series of interlocking stories, being over three hours long, having possibly the most non-sequitur third-act twist of all time, and getting Tom Cruise an Academy Award nomination.

The All-Star Cast includes Cruise (Frank T.J. Mackey, producer of really sleazy pick-up-artist tapes), John C. Reilly (Jim, a kindly LAPD beat cop), Jason Robards in his last role (Earl Partridge, dying of cancer), Julianne Moore (Earl's wife Linda), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Earl's hospice nurse Phil), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator, host of TV children's quiz show "What Do Kids Know?", which is produced by Earl Partridge), Melora Walters (Claudia, Jimmy's troubled daughter), William H. Macy (Donnie Smith, former champion of the show 30 years ago), and Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector, current champion of the show).

A 30-year-old Patton Oswalt appears as Delmer the blackjack dealer in one of the opening vignettes.

The title refers to the flower, which has many petals going off in different directions, but which are all connected in the back.

Character tropes go on to the Characters Sheet.

Tropes include:

  • Aborted Arc: The murder of the guy that Officer Jim finds in the closet is forgotten after a while. (In the script, the murderer is "The Worm", son of the woman and father to the little rapping boy. Orlando Jones played the part, but those scenes were cut from a movie that was already three hours long, and Jones appears only as the mysterious hooded figure that Jim chases in the rain.)
  • Abusive Parents: One of the themes of the movie.
    • Earl Partridge, who abandoned his wife and son.
    • Donnie Smith's parents used the money he earned during his time in What Do Kids Know?
    • Jimmy Gator quite likely molested his daughter Claudia, though it's hard to say with certainty. She's a drug addict, which could be her response to such an event, or warped her memory into believing it. When confronted, however, his only reply is an apparently sincere claim that he doesn't remember, which is frightening on its own. Also noted is his invasion of her bedroom earlier in the movie. This gives the sense that he is dismissive of personal space and thinks himself entitled to his daughter's time at the drop of a hat, even though he knows of his status as a possibly-still-dangerous abuser in her mind.
    • Rick Spector constantly forces, manipulates, and guilt-trips his son to win. Like Donnie's parents, Rick profits from his son's efforts.
    • The parents of the other two quiz kids.
  • Animal Motifs: Dogs and Frank T.J. Mackey. Frank's "Seduce and Destroy" banner features an anthropomorphic wolf-man on it chasing after a cat. During his interview, Frank even starts panting like a dog to the point where Gwenovier has to get him to "heel" and sit back in his chair. This also links him to his father, Earl Partridge, who has five dogs and dog imagery scattered around his house.
  • Arc Number: The numbers 8 and 2 often in conjunction, leading to a quote of Exodus 8:2 and the plague of frogs it describes.
  • Arc Symbol: Almost every location contains at least one picture or painting of a magnolia.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The arc numbers 8 and 2 appear throughout the film. They refer to Exodus 8:2, in which God calls the plague of frogs against Egypt. The film climaxes with just such a plague falling over Los Angeles.
    • Also contains a subversion with the line "And the book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us," spoken by multiple characters. The book in question is not the Bible, but The Natural History of Nonsense, a 1946 anti-superstition book by English professor and game-show host Dr. Bergen Evans. When first we see Stanley in the library simultaneously contemplating multiple books, The Natural History of Nonsense is among them; it is in the center-right, and has a blue cover. (Perhaps on the big screen — or in HD — the book's appearance is not as difficult to discern.)
    • Reportedly, director P.T. Anderson was unaware that the story of frogs falling from the sky is in the Bible (he took it from Charles Fort's writing) when he wrote the screenplay. The Bible story of the plague of frogs was brought to his attention by Henry Gibson prior to filming. After he became aware of the story, Anderson worked references to Exodus 8:2 into the movie.
  • Brick Joke: As Phil is occupied on the phone trying to get through the layers of operators to Frank T.J. Mackey, he accidentally knocks a bunch of Earl's pills on the floor, and the dogs are shown eating the pills up. Much later, near the end, we find out that one of the dogs overdosed. The small canine corpse is zipped up and wheeled out along with the larger corpse of Earl Partridge.
  • The Cameo:
    • Alfred Molina has one scene as Solomon, Donnie's irritated boss.
    • Porn star Veronica Hart is one of the dental hygienists taking molds of Donnie's teeth.
    • Thomas Jane, who had a big part in Boogie Nights, appears as young Jimmy Gator in the old game show footage.
    • Mariam Margolyes appears in one of the prologues as the mother who accidentally shoots her son in convoluted circumstances. She was actually annoyed that her appearance was pared down to such brevity as her career as a Hollywood character actress had recently taken off, and she asked not to be credited at all.
  • Central Theme: Several themes in Magnolia include; regret, loneliness, the cost of failed relationships as a result of parents (particularly fathers), and cruelty to children and its lasting effect (particularly demonstrated by the implied sexual assault perpetrated on Claudia by Jimmy)
    • This movie also touches upon religious themes including references from the book of Exodus and when it starts raining frogs.
  • Child Prodigy: Stanley Spector. Donnie Smith was once this, but is now an Ineffectual Loner.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Most of the film's characters could fall under this trope (Good examples are Marcy and Claudia's beginning scenes). However, none of them can seem to reach the extent that Linda Partridge does with this trope. She says the word "fuck" in virtually every scene she's in, and it's usually never uttered just once.
    Linda Partridge (to the pharmacist #1): You motherfucker. You motherfucker, you fucking asshole, who the fuck are — who the fuck do you think you are? I come in here, you don't know me, you don't know who I am, what my life is, and you have the balls, the indecency to ask me a question about my life? (to pharmacist #2) And fuck you too, don't you call me lady!... I have sickness all around me, and you fucking ask me my life? What's wrong? Have you seen death in your bed? In your house? Where's your fucking decency? And that I'm asked fucking questions, what's WRONG? Suck my dick! That's what's wrong! And you! You fucking call me lady!
  • Compartment Shot: Donnie's face over opening his company's safe.
  • Country Matters: We're introduced to Tom Cruise's character as he's leading a chant: "Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!"
  • Creator Cameo: P.T. Anderson is a member of the "What Do Kids Know?" crew. He can be seen immediately after the start of the show confiscating an "Exodus 8:2" sign from a member of the audience.
  • Crowd Song: "Wise Up", which manages to combine this with Lonely Piano Piece.
  • Discreet Drink Disposal: Jim praises Claudia's coffee only to dump the content of his cup into the sink while she is not looking.
  • Driven to Suicide: The boy in the prologue, as well as Linda, who couldn't bear the guilt about her infidelity.
  • Ensemble Cast: A true ensemble cast, with none of the principals getting more screen time than any of the others.
  • Ends with a Smile: The final shot of the movie is of Claudia Gator smiling into the camera and Breaking the Fourth Wall after almost two hours of being a Broken Bird (such as reliving abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her father), to suggest that she's finally earned some sort of happy ending.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: A hallmark of P.T. Anderson's career, here seen in a long sequence where the camera follows Stanley through the narrow, snaking hallways of the TV studio. A second long, snaking tracking shot follows the kids through the studio and out into the TV set.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The film focuses on a group of intersecting characters in the span of a day.
  • Flipping the Table: Frank does this on-stage in anger over the interview he just came out of.
  • Foreshadowing: An ad by a bus stop that says only "Exodus 8:2" ("If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.") lights up right before the transition to the final act.
  • Get Out!: A very dramatic incidence of this when Claudia screamingly evicts her estranged father from her apartment who came to tell her about his terminal cancer. Her overreaction is puzzling until we learn that she was molested by her father when she was young.
  • Gold Digger: Linda Partridge. She married Earl for his money, but then fell in love with him... as he was dying.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: In the prologue, the boy committing suicide by jumping off a building had a suicide letter in his pocket.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Frank T.J. Mackey. "Respect… the cock! Tame… the cunt!" Eventually revealed to be something of a subversion. Mackey's real hatred is for his father (and himself, in that he loves and leaves them just as his father did), and part of the reason he treats women poorly is because he can't stand the thought of getting close enough to one that he'd love them the way he loved his mother.
  • Hollywood Law: In-universe: in the urban legend about the son shot by his mother while leaping from the roof in a suicide attempt, the narrator says that the mother was charged with murder. However, without the requisite intent, the appropriate charge would be manslaughter.
  • Hyperlink Story: All the characters link together in one way or another. The end credits to "What Do Kids Know" reveal that Earl Partridge is the producer of the show.
  • Interrupted Suicide:
    • Jimmy Gator attempts to shoot himself, only to be stopped by the plague of frogs. One lands on his gun, making him misfire.
    • Linda's suicide attempt is foiled by the young boy calling the ambulance.
  • Iris Out: The movie starts with an Iris In as part of the vintage look of the silent movie footage.
  • Jukebox Musical: Sort of. Actually only has one musical number.
  • Jump Scare: When the first two frogs hit the windshield of Jim's car.
  • Just Keep Driving: When the frogs start falling from the sky, none of the vehicles in the movie stop driving leading to two accidents. Played particularly straight with the ambulance that goes on an on until it finally tips over. Mostly justified—Jim is driving to catch the burglar that turns out to be Donnie, Rose is racing to get to her daughter after finding out disturbing news, and of course the ambulance is rushing an OD victim to the emergency room.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: See This Is the Part Where... below. Phil Parma with his dialogue actually narrates his scene, where he is attempting to reach Frank. ("This is the part where you help me out.")
  • Marriage Before Romance: Played for drama as Linda married her much older husband Earl purely for money, and only realises that she's genuinely fallen in love with him when he's in the final stages of cancer and too out of it for her to explain it to him. The combination of grief, and guilt over her earlier unfeeling treatment of him, drives her to a suicide attempt which ultimately fails.
  • Maybe Ever After: It's not at all guaranteed that Jim and Claudia will have a successful (or even long-term) relationship, especially given her cocaine addiction. But it is fairly certain that they will try.
  • Melodrama: Serious example.
  • Mysterious Parent: Inverted. Dying television producer Earl Partridge is looking for his long-lost son. It turns out to be Frank T. J. Mackey.
  • One Last Smoke: Jimmy Gator and Earl (figuratively) opt to take a smoke before committing suicide or passing on.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with Jim Kurring and Jimmy Gator.
  • One-Word Title: The title is Magnolia, referring to the flower, which has many petals going off in different directions, but which are all connected in the back, and the film has the characters link together in one way or another.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Happy ending isn't guaranteed for any of the characters (and might even seem unlikely for most of them), and the demise of the dying ones is a Foregone Conclusion. But the ending gives a hope that there might be a change for the better in the lives of those who survive.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: The mother with the rifle in the prologue who is killing her son thanks to this trope.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: Aimee Mann's "Wise Up" was originally written for Jerry Maguire, and several of the other songs were meant for her album Bachelor No. 2, which was recorded before the movie but due to record-company problems not released until afterwards.
  • Spiteful Spit: Frank Mackey symbolically spits onto the journalist at the end of their interview as he got fed up with her poking in his Dark and Troubled Past.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Stanley's father throws a chair across the room in anger over seeing his son chickening out of the one-on-one challenge.
  • This Is the Part Where...: Possibly one of the most tear-jerking examples ever, tying in neatly with our own Tropes Are Tools article.
    Phil: I know this sounds silly, and I know that I might sound this is the scene of the movie...where the guy is trying to get a hold of the long-lost son, y'know, but this is that scene. This is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they're true. Y'know, because they really happen. And you gotta believe me, this is really happening. I mean, I can give you my number and you can go check with whoever you gotta check with and call me back. But do not leave me hanging on this. Please. I'm just — please. See...this is the scene of the movie where you help me out.
  • Truth in Television: Believe it or not, frogs and other creatures raining from the sky has actually happened on more than one occasion. When a particularly heavy storm or tornado sweeps over swampland filled with frogs, it isn't that unusual for the animals to be swept up in to the air and dropped on nearby land.
  • Urban Legends: The three anecdotes that open the movie are not true stories. Well, the first one sort of is, but in actuality the hill was called "Greenberry Hill" after the fact, when it was named after murderers Green, Berry, and Hill. The last anecdote, about the man shot while jumping off the roof of a building, was also used in Homicide: Life on the Street, and is also apparently used as a test case in criminal law classes.
    • Also the opening segment depicts the Greenberry Hill scenario wrong: The story may have appeared in a 1911 newspaper article (as told so by the narrator), but the actual murder of Sir Godfrey and the subsequent executions of the delinquents happened back in 1678. Yet the presentation with a fake newsreel strongly implies that the events took place in or around 1911.
  • Visual Title Drop: Right before the rain of frogs, Claudia (in a cab) and Rose can be seen crossing Magnolia Avenue in downtown LA, going in opposite directions. That same intersection is where the Exodus 8:2 ad lights up right after the rain stops, and where Donnie makes the U-turn back to the store as Linda's ambulance zooms past.
  • Waxing Lyrical: Several lines are quoted or paraphrased lyrics from Aimee Mann songs, the most obvious being the opening line of "Deathly":
    Claudia Gator: Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?
  • Whip Pan: It's used to great effect in the trailer. The actual movie uses it in the scene where Phil and Earl are introduced.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Jim narrates to himself like he is participating in an episode of COPS.