Magnolia: How do you make God laugh?

As much as I want to discuss the ending to Magnolia, I am also ecstatic for the human being who has yet to see this remarkable film (and that extraordinary ending).

I promise I am not giving anything away when I say that the ending has a lot to do with what is happening to our world today.

After seeing this movie several times in the theatre when it came out in 1999, and recommending it to friends and Blockbuster Video customers the next summer, I was encountered by the same sentiment and question:

“I really liked it, but what was up with the ending?”

The best way I could explain it back then and today is through this simple joke my dad would tell me when I was a kid:

How do you make God laugh?

Make a plan.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world and each day collects historical relevance, I think of this joke often.

“Make a plan.”

How many plans did we make before schools closed, restaurants and businesses shut down, the world embraced social distancing, many people got sick, and many people died?

To me, Magnolia is all about making plans, specifically plans that mute or bury the fervent clenching of the past. Following the intertwining vignettes of nine major characters, we come to realize that their small world is actually just as big as our own.  

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson creates his little world on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, California, where his characters meet through mediascapes, happenstance, or bloodline. They are haunted by the pseudonymous “Book” quote, “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”

Some are in pain. Some are made to heal. Some are dying. Some are dying to survive.

The character montage is too vast to summarize, and it’s brilliantly abridged in the trailer and opening scene, so I’ll spare you the complexities. What’s most important is that by the end of the movie, you realize it is all about forgiveness and reconciliation. There are no clean answers, resolutions, or amends because that’s exactly when the ending takes place – an ending that reminds us the world is much bigger than our own.

Magnolia remains one of my favorite movies of all time, and even though it is long and borderline pretentious, I believe those are the required elements for filmmaking audacity, especially in 1999 when movies were bursting with originality (1999: The Year It All Started). Besides, with a movie like this, there is always something new to discover with each viewing, and take it from someone who has seen this gem more than a dozen times – it is worth every minute.

It is worth every solemnly bowed phrase by the cello in Jon Brion’s score, every vile word that comes out of Tom Cruise’s mouth, and every example of human happenstance we see from beginning to end.    

Speaking of the ending, there are actually two infamous denouements that spark conversation. Am I referring to the one that Noah Baumbach shamelessly ripped off in his Marriage Story? (I’ll give you a hint: Aimee Mann is involved.)

Or, is it the one that kind of reminds you of what’s happening to our world today?

Stay together, peeps. We need each other now more than ever…

22 thoughts on “Magnolia: How do you make God laugh?

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    1. One of my favorite aspects to recall about movies isn’t the movie itself but the people I saw it with. Magnolia brings back the group of people I would invite to the theatre to see this thing with me because I wanted to share it with everyone! It was such a precious “college days” memory 🙂 Thank you for reading!

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  1. I never gave this movie a fair shake. I really didn’t care for it when I first saw it and then haven’t gone back since (five years ago now I do believe). I really love PTA’s style and how he creates such complex worlds and stories. I feel I really should give it another go and see how I feel after.

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    1. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and it still makes me laugh, cry, and gasp. It definitely hit me hard when I was in college in ‘99. Its meaning and impact still ring true 🙂

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      1. What I most remember about it is how crazy Tom Cruise is in it. It’s totally an atypical performance and maybe even one of his best.

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        1. Oscar nominated. His best performance, by far! The miracle is that you feel sorry for him and even forgive him toward the end when you find out more about his past. And, I’m a sucker for intertwining narrative movies, like Short Cuts, Nashville, or Grand Canyon. Oh, and the music in Magnolia just makes me weep!

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            1. Yeah, my wife and I are learning how to prepare “remote learning” lesson plans. Kind of difficult when you’re a music teacher :/ Rumor has it we will be on required two-week shelter in place. Stocking up and adding movies to our list! How are things over there?

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            2. Bailey was on spring break at home…I’m glad he didn’t go anywhere. Now his college said that it will be only online courses the rest of the semester.
              He told me last night…he feels for all the seniors in high school this year.

              Liked by 1 person

            3. He’s right – the seniors are going to be hit the hardest. We have no idea if we will be back, have graduation ceremonies, or even the Baccalaureate mass. Seems like it’s one day at a time with new news to follow. Too risky to go anywhere. This thing still hasn’t even plateaued!

              Liked by 1 person

            4. I sure will!
              Oh….I meant to ask you about a movie I saw the other day….it’s called Triangle…its a British-Australian film…have you seen it? It’s like the Twilight Zone on steroids.

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