THIS WEEK: Magnolia (1999). A strange tale of tightly woven storylines and entangled characters, examining the unusual coincidences in life.
Enjoy the moment.
HOW IT STARTS: Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is on his deathbed. He wants to take some control and end his life. Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his caretaker tasked with helping the dying man. The scene then shifts to a woman, Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), equally distraught, who starts singing Aimee Mann‘s “Wise Up.”
THE PREFACE: This is a complicated movie with complex themes and multi-dimensional characters. The movie begins with a narrator telling us remarkable tales of coincidence. Magnolia will be another such tale, too strange to believe, but it happened none-the-less. It’s hard to break the entire film down simply. So, I’m aiming my focus specifically on That Moment.
Robards is the dying father to neglected son, Frank T, J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). Their relationship is non-existent and full of hatred. Robards younger wife is Linda (Julianne Moore). She’s dealing with aging herself. Her husband acts as a reminder of what’s ahead. This one relationship has many arms with a long reach.
This is just one example of the layered storytelling, also including William H. Macy‘s storyline as a former whiz kid named Donnie Smith, paralleled with a current whiz kid, and their troubled parents.
THE SET-UP: The music of Aimee Mann plays throughout the movie, giving it a unified voice, and acting as a secondary narrator. The music reflects what the characters are thinking or feeling. These characters are on the verge of making a breakthrough in their lives. Change is just around the corner. While it may seem hopeless, they’re is a reason to keep pushing ahead and confront life’s obstacles.
“Wise Up” thematically talks about not giving up, life is not going to stop throwing obstacles and tragedies. The song mentions you should give up the struggle and go with the flow. Make amends now, before it’s too late. Ultimately, these characters are all experiencing similar issues in their lives. When That Moment comes, it acts as a metaphorical exorcism. Watching it is incredibly moving.
THAT MOMENT: Melora Walters contemplates her next move in a new relationship, she’s trying to turn her life around. Addiction calls to her. She abuses one more line. And begins to sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” She’s singing along with it, perhaps on the radio.
Haunting introspective lyrics include, “You got what you want… You can hardly stand it now.” These lyrics alone urge participation, combined with the actions on screen you can’t help but wonder what this sequence means.
Next up we see the man in her new relationship, police Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). He’s thinking the exact same thing. He’s singing along to the exact same song. This continues with the rest of the ensemble cast. One after another, we realize the true power of a moment. All of these people are feeling the same way, the song expressing their emotions. It’s the beauty of feeling alone, when they really aren’t.
The floating camerawork infuses the drama with crackling energy. In this sequence alone, the camera pushes into the subject or glides towards them. The motion combines with the music to great effect, stirring the emotions.
The scene shifts again, as the camera arrives on Julianne Moore singing from inside a car as it pours rain outside. The dying Robards sings alongside Hoffman. Tom Cruise sings from inside his car, under that same rain. The lyrics say “it’s not going to stop, until you wise up.”
The final shot of a rainy street lands moments after the final lyric “…so just give up.” The downpour stops, paralleled with the character’s epiphanies.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: Paul Thomas Anderson perfectly conducted one of the boldest scenes in modern cinema. And I’m not talking about when it starts raining frogs. The brilliantly creative use of source music completely compliments the inner world of these multiple characters. It is with That “Wise Up” Moment that all their stories collide, building towards some sort of resolution.
Magnolia was dismissed by audiences and divided critics. This Moment was scoffed at by many. I understand how it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is a character-driven movie. Anderson makes movies based on us, not some fantasy. He reminds us that truth is often stranger than fiction.
The most buzzed about moment was when the frogs rained from the skies. Lots of frogs. This sequence excuses the coincidence of the cast singing the same song at the same moment. The singing isn’t the weirdest thing to happen.
Magnolia celebrates the unexplainable, urging you to wonder why this scene is happening, and why you’re so captivated by this mesmerizing song.
As a child, you may have wondered if there was anyone else in the world the same as you, or someone who thinks the same, or feels the same. Anderson explores this childish impulse that we are all connected from an adult perspective.
No matter how alone you feel, someone else out there understands, someone else can empathize. To get back up, you need to “Wise Up”, and stop battling yourself.
We should celebrate the multitude of coincidences that form our lives. We don’t come to a moment of realization in a matter of seconds. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of experience, or taking a few steps back in order to move forward. This bleak movie is full of hope.
Fans of cinema and character, do not let Magnolia slip through the cracks. For those that have seen it, I hope you enjoyed Remembering That Moment.
David’s Take: When it was released, I went to the theater and was not impressed, though there were some good moments. I rented again a few years back and found there was a lot more to like, and I’ve since grown to like it. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Cruise come off the best for me, though all are quite good. The film tries a little too hard to be more than i is and pounds that message relentlessly, but I enjoy the connectivity between the characters and the themes of coincidence. I never had an issue with the frogs, but I generally don’t like musicales and especially when the film not a musical, but there is something authentic about this scene as the character’s aren’t necessarily “singing” the song. It feels like the song is in the background, again, coincidentally, in each of these people’s lives and they are merely echoing what Mann is saying. What could have been a terrible misstep turns out to be one of the film’s better moments. Nice pick, Dan.