— Roger Ebert American film critic, author, journalist, and TV presenter 1942 - 2013
Context: Magnolia is a film of sadness and loss, of lifelong bitterness, of children harmed and adults destroying themselves. As the narrator tells us near the end, "We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us." In this wreckage of lifetimes, there are two figures, a policeman and a nurse, who do what they can to offer help, hope and love. … The central theme is cruelty to children, and its lasting effect. This is closely linked to a loathing or fear of behaving as we are told, or think, that we should. … As an act of filmmaking, it draws us in and doesn't let go. It begins deceptively, with a little documentary about amazing coincidences (including the scuba diver scooped by a fire-fighting plane and dumped on a forest fire) … coincidences and strange events do happen, and they are as real as everything else. If you could stand back far enough, in fact, everything would be revealed as a coincidence. What we call "coincidences" are limited to the ones we happen to notice. … In one beautiful sequence, Anderson cuts between most of the major characters all simultaneously singing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNmKghTvj0E Aimee Mann's "It's Not Going to Stop." A directorial flourish? You know what? I think it's a coincidence. Unlike many other "hypertext movies" with interlinking plots, Magnolia seems to be using the device in a deeper, more philosophical way. Anderson sees these people joined at a level below any possible knowledge, down where fate and destiny lie. They have been joined by their actions and their choices.
And all leads to the remarkable, famous, sequence near the film's end when it rains frogs. Yes. Countless frogs, still alive, all over Los Angeles, falling from the sky. That this device has sometimes been joked about puzzles me. I find it a way to elevate the whole story into a larger realm of inexplicable but real behavior. We need something beyond the human to add another dimension. Frogs have rained from the sky eight times this century, but never mind the facts. Attend instead to Exodus 8:2, which is cited on a placard in the film: "And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite your whole territory with frogs." Let who go? In this case, I believe, it refers not to people, but to fears, shames, sins.
Magnolia is one of those rare films that works in two entirely different ways. In one sense, it tells absorbing stories, filled with detail, told with precision and not a little humor. On another sense, it is a parable. The message of the parable, as with all good parables, is expressed not in words but in emotions. After we have felt the pain of these people, and felt the love of the policeman and the nurse, we have been taught something intangible, but necessary to know.
Review of Magnolia (1999), in review for Great Movies (27 November 2008) http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-magnolia-1999