Yes, it's time to talk about the frogs. Only the laziest movie-watcher could claim they've simply been dropped into the picture. All through Magnolia, to prepare you for the plague rain, you're kept informed of the changing weather. The younger of the quiz kids, Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), even asks for meteorological instruments (and has been studying a book by Charles Fort, chronicler of unexplained downpours). Three times, amid normal precipitation, characters say, "It's raining cats and dogs." Three times you see signs that read "Exodus 8:2," giving chapter and verse of the second of Egypt's plagues.
Still, who could believe that Anderson would pull such a stunt? Playing on your expectations, he begins the episode with another feint: While having you follow the cop along a midnight street, Anderson lets you think you've heard gunshots. That's what the cop thinks, too, having been fired upon earlier in the day. Now he slams on the brakes--and sees two frogs sliding down his windshield.
Suddenly, the rain of frogs becomes general. It translates the cop's personal humiliation into widespread, public calamity--something out there, which calls for him to do what he likes best, helping others. To Claudia, by contrast, the frogs manifest themselves as the ultimate drug heebie-jeebie. (With classic slapstick timing, they fall only when she looks away.) At the home of the dying TV producer (Jason Robards), the frogs plop down comfortably in and around a spot-lit swimming pool; a sterile Southern California "oasis" suddenly teems with life. To the producer's self-destructive wife (Julianne Moore), lying in the back of a careening ambulance, the frogs are disaster piled on catastrophe. To the quiz-show host (Philip Baker Hall) they're a judgment from on high, prolonging a life he no longer wants. To young Stanley, smiling dreamily in the grammar school library amid their drifting shadows, the frogs seem the fulfillment of a promise.
In brief, there is no single rain of frogs; there are many. And that's what makes this plague--or blessing--seem so miraculous: not the freakishness of the event but its democratic multiplicity. I could say much the same for the miracle of Magnolia's performances--each flamingly intense, yet all blended into an ensemble--or for the wonder of an actor-centered filmmaking that's intricately imagistic. On every level, from its montage technique to the objects of its meditations, Magnolia tests to the limit the tendency of life to fall apart; and in pulling against that entropy, to gather (some of) its characters into a (mostly) happy ending, it offers a comic vision that almost does the work of tragedy.
From now on, under the legend "E Pluribus Unum," let the dollar bear the sign of a frog.