That Moment

"Wise Up" | Magnolia (1999)

illustration by Tom Ralston

P.T. Anderson sat down at the table to write his third movie.Usually,” he said later, “you sit down at the table and you know there are all these things you want to get into the movie…I want it to be sad and funny and have action set pieces in it.” He laughed. “And sometimes they just happen.”

This time, what happened was this:

First, a dying old man speaks for about eight minutes. He’s propped up on his deathbed in the living room of his San Fernando Valley home, and he delivers a teeming aria of sorrow and pain, all to a gentle hospice nurse who sits vigil, caring for the weakened man. 

That moment, outside, the rain pounds.

That moment, not far away, another old man is returned home by two kind women, neither of whom he deserves. He’s changed out of his wet clothes, dazed and nearing the end himself.

The goddamn regret, the dying man howls. The goddamn regret!

That moment, a woman showers, brushes her hair before a date, and prepares her cocaine.

Don’t ever let anyone ever say to you,  ‘You shouldn’t regret anything!’

That moment, the LAPD scour the riverbed for a lost gun. The good cop—the clumsy, good cop—who lost it holds his massive flashlight like a baton, a beacon.

You regret what you fucking want!

That moment, a sodden boy breaks into the school library and makes himself a stack of books, all of them telling the stories of brilliant children. 

This fucking life … It’s so fucking hard.

That moment, a man prepares to do something desperate—and criminal—all for the sake of the love he doesn’t know what to do with.

Goddamn. Oh. What did I do?

That moment, a desperate woman steals her dying husband’s pills, and sits in her car, downing them with liquor.

What did I do? What did I do?

That moment, the dying old man’s son sits in his own car outside his father’s door, waiting, gathering the courage to go inside.

That moment, P.T. Anderson wrote in his script over 200 times. That was how he punctuated his scenes, which cascade atop one another in a pileup that all takes place in that moment.

There’s a moment of quiet grace between the speech and what comes next. One hospice nurse arrives to relieve another, but the one on duty sends his relief away. “Yeah,” he says quietly, “I think I’m gonna stay on. Stick it out.”

“Are you sure?” the other man asks, and then he leaves. There’s a sense that an unspoken understanding is at play: that when the end has come, the one on duty should stay by the bedside, not give up the post. There’s something noble in this gesture. There’s a grace to it.

Inside, the nurse picks up the bottle of morphine. He’s begun to weep. The dying man breathes shallowly as the nurse applies a few drops to the patient’s mouth and then falls forward to kiss him.

While he wrote his third movie, P.T. Anderson started to cry. And then he realized what he needed to do.

It starts with Claudia. The writing of the movie started with her, too. “She’s my love,” Anderson said of Claudia. In the network of traumatized and abused children that is Magnolia, Claudia (Melora Walters) is the rawest nerve, the heart that beats closest to the surface. 

“This is stupid,” she mutters as she hunches forward to take her drugs. Around her, the sound of a piano is rising.

First Aimee Mann sings it alone: It’s not

But right away, Claudia joins in, singing along to some unseen source: —what you thought, when you first began it. You got what you want. Now you can hardly stand it though by now you know, it’s not going to stop.

“She’s so fucking cool,” Anderson would later say of Aimee Mann. Why write her songs into the script of his movie? Because “I wanted to be able to tell everybody that I think so.”

From Claudia, we move to the bedroom of Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), the good Catholic. There are few examples in Anderson’s work of religion being viewed as a positive rather than a corrosive force, but Jim’s running one-sided conversation with God provides the film’s moral core. Anderson saw Kurring as his Jimmy Stewart character, his one good man against a world that’s going wrong. Now, Jim sits before his cross, repenting. And, against the odds—against any rational explanation outside of movie-magic logic—he sings, too:

It’s not going to stop. It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up.

We move to Claudia’s father, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall)—the diminutive form of her love interest’s name, a bizarre twist of the knife—an abuser incapable of repentance. This is this man the film holds in such deep contempt that he won’t even be allowed a suicide. Anderson hates Jimmy Gator, he was happy to affirm on release. “He’s got to burn,” Anderson said. “That’s what he deserves. I wanted it to be really clear.” And Jimmy sings, too, though it’s hard to discern the words:

You’re sure there’s a cure, and you have finally found it.

We leave Claudia’s orbit to find Donnie (William H. Macy), the overgrown abused child, the ultimate hangdog. Poor Donnie, doomed to be punished outrageously by the fates of Magnolia, all for the temerity of wanting love. If the ultimate message of Anderson’s filmography could be viewed as, Be nice to your fucking kids, Donnie is one example of all the wrong that can be wrought from failing in that task. And Donnie sings:

You think one drink will shrink you ‘til you’re underground and living down, but it’s not going to stop.

We travel to Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the riverboatman, ushering Earl to the other side. Phil, who shares a name with his actor. “I wrote it for Phil, and it is Phil,” Anderson said. “The way he talks, the way he is.” And even Earl (Jason Robards), the dying old man now out of words and full of drugs, can sing a few bars—Earl, based on Ernie Anderson, whose own cancer inspired his son to write Magnolia. P.T., as he was known professionally by 1999, who once haunted the control rooms and soundstages of network television with his father, wrote the world of television into the fabric of his screenplay. Into Earl, he poured his urge to write “Eugene O’Neill scenes,” and his spoken aria does seem to break the film open, creating the void that Aimee Mann rushes in to fill. And they sing:

It’s not going to stop. It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up.

From Earl, we follow the chain of connection to his wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), in the car she presumes she’ll die in. Linda, based on a wife of Ernie’s herself, and author of one of the most exquisitely howling performances in the film. “It is marvelous, it is nutty, it is so frustrated and actorly and heightened,” Hunter Harris wrote of Julianne Moore’s performance as Linda. “It’s Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s me when I need to do laundry and call my parents and step back into a Google Doc, but I’m on my period and an email ends with a punctuation mark that makes me cry.” Magnolia is a soap opera, and Linda is its screeching diva, the whirling dervish now reduced to the point of attempted suicide. And she sings:

Prepare a list for what you need before you sign away the deed, ’cause it’s not going to stop. 

Nearing the end of the line, we go from one car to another—we track along this car for a long time, waiting to reveal the man inside, though we know who to expect. Somehow it’s most remarkable of all seeing Tom Cruise sing—the megastar, the one Anderson should never have been able to get for his third feature, his overblown indie. The one who brought him across the ocean into the orbit of Kubrick, the one destined to bring home one of those nominations Anderson’s films are so capable of eliciting, with so few wins in the balance.

It’s not going to stop. It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up. No it’s not going to stop ’til you wise up. No it’s not going to stop.

So just give up, sings Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), who won’t. Stanley, who will insist on that simple dictum: You have to be nicer to me. Seven little words from the mouth of a babe that will plant the seed from which something better might grow.

That moment, the rain clears.

The crew was skeptical of the “Wise Up” sequence, Anderson later said. “But every time we’d get to the point of shooting a character’s ‘Wise Up’ scene, it was kind of like, okay, ante up. Will it work as well with this person as it did with the other one before …” And, he claimed, “it did, every time.

“When that group sing-along arrives,” Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review, “Magnolia begins to self-destruct spectacularly. It’s astonishing to see a film begin this brilliantly only to torpedo itself.” This was not an uncommon refrain. The movie, already so hyperbolic, breaks in half with “Wise Up,” never to recover. This was something that was said.

But, wrote George Toles in his book on Anderson, as the “many wrangling voices” of Magnolia have been “whipped up to fever pitch” by the time of Earl’s speech, Mann’s voice “refreshes” the film’s linguistic reserves “in a sort of nursery hush, with a maternal voice…making the world over, as one does when crooning a lullaby late at night.” Mann serves as an unseen character in the film, as much as Ricky Jay’s omniscient narrator (who might be God, or Anderson himself, if P.T. didn’t conflate the two during this era).

“It’s a weeping movie,” read the title of Cynthia Fuchs’s 2000 profile of Anderson, and it’s true, this is essentially a soap opera, a weepy about the failings of the patriarchy and all the emotional violence wrought by two callous men’s inability to be good to their kids—two men who stand in for a generation, and all the generations before.

Magnolia is also an apocalypse movie, but its apocalypse is what’s called Pauline. This isn’t the sort of world-ending event we tend to conjure when we think of the term—when the frogs rain down, they represent a world-clearing force, one that unambiguously rearranges the world. In this case, what’s rearranged is the emotional cosmos of Magnolia. The way is cleared. The wound has been salved. What’s to come next?