“This was not just a matter of chance,” the narrator of Magnolia tells us, and so begins an odyssey of coincidence, absurdity, failure, and redemption. A television producer lies dying, his memory failing, crying out for his estranged son. A cable-TV pseudo-celebrity, renowned for his seminars on how to successfully seduce women, finds himself confronted by the past he has tried to forget. A former quiz-kid champion struggles with the uselessness of his knowledge and the loneliness of his life. An up-and-coming quiz kid champion tries to break free of his father’s control. Haunted by sexual abuse, a young girl struggles to overcome her mess of a life and find solace in a romantic relationship with an insecure police officer. There are some, but not all, of the many individuals who populate Magnolia, and all of them are, in one way or another, bound together.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s intimate direction keeps us close to these characters, and if the film seems epic, it’s only because of the sprawling of the narrative and the sweeping emotions. Magnolia never holds too closely to realism—the centerpiece of the film features a kind of group sing-a-long, like a brief venture into a musical—but it never departs from its distinctly human struggles. The ending's strange climax recalls the work of Charles Fort and the Biblical plagues of Egypt in one stroke, suggesting that absurdity and providence may be two sides of the same coin.
At the end of Magnolia, many of these characters step towards redemption. Others fall to a kind of judgment. Absurd chance, or perhaps some form of greater providence, has brought them together and has forced them to confront their failings. Magnolia is exhausting in its relentless depiction of human brokenness, but it ultimately points to the existence of grace and the hope for redemption.