8 Reasons P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia Is Exactly Like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts

short cuts


It is no secret that P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia borrows heavily from Altman’s Short Cuts. Typically with film there are subtle instances where a director will pay tribute to an idol but Anderson goes well beyond that with his personal favorite film, one he wrote a great deal of inside William H. Macy’s cabin, afraid to go outside because he’d seen a snake.

Magnolia, in fact, takes homage to another level and is perhaps the best and only film of its kind. I can only assume his intention of doing this is a bold attempt to improve upon one of his favorite films. What else could Magnolia be but an experiment in craft? What else could it be but a director’s goal to attempt to outdo one of his heroes? Honestly, I still can’t decide which film I like more.

In any case, here are a few elements in which both films are shockingly similar.


8. Both Are Ensemble Films that Take Place in L.A. in a Small Amount of Time


I guess I should first note that the general premise of both movies is pretty much the same. That is to say, both films are ensembles about intersecting lives over the course of a small time in L.A. dealing with themes of estrangement, regret, redemption, infidelity, and coincidence/fate.

Each movie also has a terrific cast that benefit from minor players like a vindictive baker played by Lyle Lovett in Short Cuts as well as a creepy Henry Gibson as a cruel, annoyed bar patron in Magnolia. Even Ricky Jay shows up as an unlikely narrator in the latter mentioned..

fragmented narrative

Both films also boast some of the best performances of those involved. Chris Penn gives the performance of his career as a pool cleaner whose sex operator wife (awesomely played by a nonchalant Jennifer Jason Leigh) is driving him crazy. Matthew Modine does well as a jealous husband and Bruce Davidson magnificently underplays a man dealing with both his son’s accident as well as issues with his absent father Jack Lemmon who offers my favorite moment in the film (to be discussed later). Short Cuts also benefits from memorable moments from a complicated, asshole cop played by Tim Robbins, a convincing drunk limo driver played by Tom Waits, and an amazing job from Julianne Moore as an unfaithful, artist wife.

Magnolia, on the other hand, produces what I consider to be the very best performance of Tom Cruise’s career as misogynist motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey as well as a comical, heartbreaking performance from William H. Macy as aged, child prodigy Donnie Smith. However, to me, the breakthrough performance in this film is that of John C. Rilley as an earnest cop looking for love.


7. Both Have Soundtracks that Predominantly Feature the Same Female Singer

I sometimes wonder why Anderson chose to use Mann (a personal friend since his film Hard Eight) instead of Fiona Apple (who made her own soundtrack splash with “Across the Universe” for Gary Ross’s Pleasantville a year before and whose video Anderson directed) considering he was dating her at the time (her paintings appearing throughout the film) but there’s no question Mann improves the film. In fact, Anderson stated that Mann’s work was a big inspiration on the actual writing of the screenplay and he even uses a line from one of her songs in dialogue. When Walters says to Reilly: “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again.”

In 1999, the Magnolia Soundtrack drew lots of comparisons to The Graduate Soundtrack due to the wonderful contributions of Mann, most notably the wrenching “Save Me” which closes the film and drowns out an almost inaudible exchange between Melora Walters and John C. Reilly that effectively closes the film (ironically, Anderson’s first idea of the film before it was written was Walters smiling) as well as the wonderful “Wise Up” which becomes a kind of film within a film (all the actors singing the lyrics to song during the film).

Ross’s jaded jazz however is also a driving force within Short Cuts and occurs both in scenes where Annie Ross’s character appears but also as background in scenes which she does not. Ross’s songs did not have the same cultural significance Mann did but nonetheless her contributions are almost another character in Short Cuts, often become a part of the action in the film (examples being Tom Wait’s character getting in an altercation at bar or when Zoe comes to visit her during practice before her suicide attempt or when Zoe actually commits suicide).


6. Both Movies Include a Scene Where a Body is Found in a Humorous Way

short cuts dead body

It has been about two weeks between my re-watching of these two movies but another element that sticks out is the scene in which the fisherman find the woman’s body after Vern (Huey Lewis) pisses on her in the lake and the three (also including Buck Henry, Fred Ward) decide to keep rope the body up so they can keeping fishing through the weekend.

Their decision is funny, pathetic, and ultimately sad just like the scene were Marcie (Cleo King) screams obscenities and “that ain’t mine” at an unsuspecting John C. Reilly who finds a body in her closet.


5. Julianne Moore Remorsefully Recounting Sexual Indiscretions


Perhaps one the most striking similarities between these two films is Julianne Moore who gives stunning performances in both. In Short Cuts, Moore plays an unfaithful wife who memorably (naked from the waist down) recounts cheating on her husband to a resigned Modine (a story composited from Raymond Carver’s “Vitamins” I think). In Magnolia, Moore gives a very similar monologue where she expresses remorse of infidelity to Michael Murphy (an actor who appears in Altman’s Countdown, MASH, Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and Kansas City). On a side note, Moore is not the only actor from Short Cuts involved with Magnolia.


Predating Magnolia, Anderson was going around town with John C. Reilly creating fake COPS parody videos which included Jennifer Jason Leigh (an Altman favorite). Chris Penn was also involved in production as he and Reilly transcribed tapes of two men engaged in a trash talk of women which was being used for the Mackey character. I also want to point out that Short Cuts includes Robert Downey Jr. and Magnolia includes his father Robert Downey Sr. I think that is relevant in some way.


4. Estranged Fathers Regret Things


Both involve an old man remorsefully talking about cheating on his wife. In fact, there are three instances of it. In Short Cuts, Jack Lemmon offers my favorite scenes in the movie as a deadbeat dad who visits his aged son (Bruce Davidson) in the hospital after his son gets hit by a car. It has been years since the two have seen each other and Lemmon has little offer than bar tricks with shot glasses and the kindness one might give a stranger in the line at the DMV.

Still, Lemmon seeks redemption from Davidson during a hospital lunch when he relates the unfortunate story of how he cheated on his wife with her sister when Davidson was a child decades ago. Davidson responds with politeness but we sense his unease and unwillingness to give a shit about what Lemmon has to say. Even sadder, later, as Davidson’s son dies we see a hunched over Lemmon walk away from his son’s life again, failing again at his last chance at retribution and creating one of the most memorable scene of the movie.


In Magnolia, Jason Robards gives a speech about cheating on his wife as does a dying Jimmy Gator played by Philip Baker Hall. They’re both memorable scenes but both don’t live up to Lemmon’s scene even though Robards gives the performance of his life, dying two years later of the same disease. It is said that this particular aspect of the movie (the deathbed scene between Cruise and Robards) is inspired by the late WABC-TV announcer Ernie Anderson, P.T. Anderson’s father, who also died of cancer. Ernie also sounds like one of the coolest guys ever. He hosted a late-night horror show as Ghoulardiand was admired by everyone from The Cramps to The Black Keys to Drew Carey.


3. More Really Bad Fathers and Mothers

short cuts tom waits

As already mentioned, both movies include estranged fathers (Lemmon, Robards, and Hall) trying to reconnect with their estranged children. Both also include kids in trouble (Zane Cassidy and Jeremy Blackman) as well a grown man (Macy) so misused by his parents he has become a shell of man.

However, the most apparent similarity of bad parenting between the two films involve the fact that both movies display fathers (Hall and Waits) who are implied to have molested their daughters as well as mothers. Hall almost admits this to his wife in Magnolia whereas both Lily Tomlin and Robert Downey Jr. make reference to it to Lili Taylor in Short Cuts.

Philip Baker Hall Magnolia

Correspondingly, both movies include scenes where these fathers try to make contact with these daughters. Waits’s character approaches Taylor’s character in Short Cuts in a bar only to be shooed away and Hall awkwardly tries to tell his daughter he is dying only to be screamed at by Walters.

Short Cuts also includes Annie Ross as a mother who is completely incapable of listening to her daughter and in fact dodges her at any chance of connection, seemingly ignoring her mental illness and suicidal tendencies as well as a completely self-absorbed Francis McDormand and a self-serving Michael Bowen (who played Uncle Jack in Breaking Bad, if you can believe it).


2. Length

The runtime for Short Cuts is 187 minutes long and the runtime for Magnolia is 188.

I am actually surprised P.T. Anderson didn’t go for a runtime of 182 to fit in with the Exodus 8:2 references throughout.


1. Their Endings


The most obvious similarity between these two films is their endings which involve natural disasters (frogs falling from the sky in Magnolia and a massive earthquake in Short Cuts) and how these natural disasters are filmed in almost identical ways.

Both are a culmination of the drama which unfolded throughout each respective film. Both create new drama and are used to tie all the characters together. Both allow the directors to repeatedly cut to all the main characters. We see Tim Robbins and Reilly both responding civically by alerting neighbors of safety procedures over a megaphone (Robbins in Short Cuts) and saving a person (Reilly in Magnolia). We see a man’s slow burn explode (Penn in Short Cuts) as well as another get his due (Hall in Magnolia). We see one mother mourn her lost daughter (Ross in Short Cuts) while another is reunited with hers (Walters and Dillon in Magnolia).

We see a son mourning a father he hated but forgives (Cruise and Robards in Magnolia) and two parents grieving their son having forgiven someone who’d become hateful toward them (Lovett, Davidson, and McDowell in Short Cuts). In other words, we see pretty similar things happening in both films at the exact same time. So similar, in fact, a part of me wants to play the two sequences together like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of OZ.

In the end, Anderson’s sequence and film are amazing. He rivals his predecessor in substance and style without the help of borrowed themes from Carver (which Altman benefits from) and creates a film more art than experiment, an homage which transcends homage, and a masterpiece far more than the sum of borrowed parts.

Author Bio: Corey Zeller is the author of MAN VS. SKY (YesYes Books, 2013), YOU AND OTHER PIECES (Civil Coping Mechanisms, forthcoming in 2015), and THE HOUSE IS A PLACE WHERE THINGS CAN GO WRONG (Civil Coping Mechanisms, forthcoming in 2015). His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Puerto del Sol, Mid-American Review, Indiana Review, The Colorado Review, The Kenyon Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Diagram, Salt Hill, West Branch, Third Coast, BOMB Magazine, The Literary Review, The Paris-American, New York Tyrant, New Orleans Review, Green Mountains Review, The Rumpus, PEN America, The Journal, Verse Daily, Chorus (MTV Books), among others. He currently works in crisis support at a facility for at-risk youth as well as an editor at The Ampersand Review.