Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia opens with a series of gruesome coincidences which serve as a gateway or a primer for his poetic narrative about the human condition. The film doesn’t ask us to believe in coincidences, for they do exist. All it takes is that one moment, that chance encounter, being in that exact place at that exact time. Right and wrong do not matter; these are simply a matter of perspective upon reflection. If so much of our lives can be determined by a single moment in the past, then so much of our future can be determined by the recognition of an opportunity in a chance encounter, the recognition of that coincidence, and the faith in the allowance of intervention.
Magnolia fills its narrative with characters whose lives intersect, the common denominator not a single human being, but their burdens: regret, despair, guilt, resentment and shame, but above all else, loneliness. They carry their loneliness on their shoulders willfully, embracing it as if they deserve nothing else, embracing it because it’s the only constant companion they’ve ever known. Aimee Mann sings “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do… two can be as bad as one, it’s the loneliest number since the number one…” and no words have ever felt so haunting, no lyrics have ever set the stage so well, as literal as they are in regards to the film’s themes. Loneliness is essentially the human condition, exacerbated by our burdens and physical solitude. Even when we are not alone, we can still feel the crushing weight of loneliness in everything we’ve ever said and done because it’s only each of us who truly feels the weight of those things. We may at times be coupled and we may at times find ourselves interacting with others, but that’s only a surface illusion of companionship.
Julianne Moore’s Linda Partridge is a woman who married the wealthy, older Earl and fucked other men because she never loved her husband -- not until much later when it was too much later and he was dying in front of her. Linda carries the burden of her infidelity just as Earl carries the guilt of abandoning his son, early MRA Frank T.J. Mackey (a spectacularly obnoxious Tom Cruise), who teaches men to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” Frank’s seminars instructing men in the subjugation of women are deeply rooted in the profound wounds left by watching his mother die slowly in front of him. To allow a woman to get close to him and to love her would ultimately lead to nothing but heartache; the only solution, then, is to treat every woman as disposable so he never gets hurt.
This brings us to Melora Walters’ Claudia -- there is no one person or performance at the center of Magnolia, but Claudia’s fragile heart comes close. She uses men or lets them use her (it’s the same), but there’s something so asexual and cold about their intercourse: the sex acts are something being done to her, something she tolerates. Claudia is reliving her trauma every day, from the moment she turns on the TV to watch her abuser (her father) play charming host between children and adults on his popular game show, to the moment when she allows a man she doesn’t even like to penetrate her body. She isolates herself purposefully, wrapped in her loneliness and resentment like a safety blanket, using the cocaine with ritual precision to dull the familiar ache.
Magnolia’s structure is one long coincidence or series of coincidences or chance encounters, or it’s merely a play wherein Anderson examines one branch of lives that are connected, as all lives are interconnected in some way if you stopped to examine the threads long enough. It is no coincidence that Claudia’s father is named Jimmy Gator, and that a man with such a surname could be so reptilian, or that his job finds him standing at a podium as the guardian between adulthood and childhood. What the world sees is a man who loves children, but what Claudia and young Stanley see is an opportunist with sharp teeth.
But even Jimmy is lonely, knowing the hurt he’s inflicted and knowing it alone. Phil Parma is lonely as seemingly the only person who can or will care for Earl Partridge in his final moments because Linda doesn’t know how -- and how lonely must a man like Phil be, a man who cares for the dying when their loved ones just can’t stand to watch them go? Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, the formerly triumphant game show champion, confuses melancholy with depression and isn’t sure where to put all this love he has to give, spending all of the money he doesn’t have to impress a man who barely knows that he exists. When it comes down to it, we just don’t want to be alone, and we’ll do anything to escape something that’s so intrinsic to our existence.
These things that we do and say to hurt other people over the course of our lifetimes, these things that shape the lives of others for better or worse (and in the case of Magnolia, so much for the worse) -- these things belong to us and us alone. The process by which we hurt others is selfish and miserable and lonely. The pain visited upon Claudia by Jimmy wasn’t about Claudia, just as the embarrassments and exploitation of Stanley aren't about Stanley, not really. And the way that Linda has hurt her husband is more about her than about him, just as Earl admits in his deathbed confessional that his own infidelities were about everything wrong with himself and nothing to do with Jack’s mother -- though he robbed everything from her in the process. Jack doesn’t hate women, really, and Claudia doesn’t truly hate herself, and so on. Those we hurt are merely innocent bystanders; they find themselves unwittingly standing in the wrong place in the wrong moment on the timeline of our lives. We make them unwilling participants in our miseries. Although it seems hopeless and relentlessly tragic, Magnolia shows, through the darkest hours in the lives of these people, all dangling precariously by that thread that connects them all, that there are other moments of chance: all it takes is one moment, one chance encounter, and your perspective can change if you allow it.
The opening narration determines that a series of coincidences cannot simply be “Something that happened,” while Claudia has pasted the phrase “But it did happen” on a painting in her living room (a haunting reminder of her abuse), and when the sky opens and frogs rain down, Stanley sits in the library and says to himself, “This is something that happens” -- and the kid with an answer for everything suddenly finds himself at peace with the most inexplicable occurrence of them all. We can explain coincidences and connect the dots, and there’s nothing really remarkable about the way these stories intertwine. But it takes something truly inexplicable, like frogs raining from the sky, to inspire each and every one of these lonely people to stop letting the past dictate their future; to be the master of their own fate; to see that chance for what it is and take it.