Paul Thomas Anderson proclaims this is his favorite of the films he has made. We begin with three strange events narrated by Ricky Jay (the only man alive who could flay you alive with playing cards at twenty paces). His point is that strange coincidences do happen:
A man named Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was murdered by (maybe; they could have been set up) three men named Green, Berry, and Hill. The site of the killing? A place called Greenberry Hill. Anderson moves this story a few hundred years into the future, and says Godfrey owned a store called Greenberry Hill, but the essence of the story is true.
A scuba diver is found high up in a pine tree near a wildfire in California. It is concluded that he was scooped up by a tanker plane. This familiar story is totally legend. Never happened.
A man jumps off a high building, intending to kill himself. But on the way down a woman fires a shotgun at her husband, missing him, but killing the falling man, who would have landed on an awning and probably survived. The woman is his mother, and the man she shot at it his father. Is this murder? Manslaughter? Stupid accident? What it is, is totally false. This scenario has been used for years in law schools as a thought experiment for aspiring lawyers to discuss.
But okay, I don’t really care about veracity here, we’re telling a story, and it’s a good one. Quite complex, turning back on itself, with several surprising connections I didn’t see coming. So this prepares us to understand that some inexplicable thing is about to happen … and it’s about two and a half hours until it does. But man, was it worth the wait. If you don’t want to know what it is, you should stop reading here.
So we have a mixed bag of characters, who at first don’t seem to interact much. It all takes place in the San Fernando Valley, in a relatively small area. I’ve seen several films that work this way, and most of them have turned out to be fascinating. There is …
Tom Cruise (in an Oscar-nominated role) as a slick-talking huckster who sells lonely and awkward men on a way of life that can be boiled down to Penis Power. He shows them how to dominate women. It’s a hell of a performance.
John C. Reilly as an ineffectual Los Angeles cop.
Philip Baker Hall as Jimmy Gator, the long-time host of a quiz show called “What Do Kids Know?” where children are pitted against adults in answering impossibly difficult questions. He is dying of cancer.
William H. Macy as a former quiz kid champion whose parents took all his money and who is now down on his luck and bitter.
Jason Robards (in his last movie role) as a dying old man who has come to regret some of the things he has done.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as the nurse who is tending to the old man as he dies.
Julianne Moore as Robards’ daughter, who tries to kill herself.
… and others. They interact, we learn who they all are in relation to each other, find out a lot of their secrets, and then … and then …
There is a rain of frogs. Such things have actually happened, with frogs and fish. But these are not little garden peepers, these are massive bullfrogs, maybe five pounds each, good eatin’ on any Frenchman’s table. And there aren’t just a few hundred of them, there are thousands and thousands.
(7,800 rubber frogs by actual count, plus thousands more added in by CGI and other tricks. When they start coming down it’s a deluge, they are so thick that you can’t walk without stepping on one. As always in a scene like this, I wonder how the hell they did it. In some scenes there must have been a lot of grips flinging rubber frogs.)
The frogs affect everyone’s lives. The ambulance carrying Julianne Moore skids, flips on its side … and coasts to a stop right at the emergency room door. Hall, who has a gun to his head to kill himself, has a frog smash through his skylight and hit his gun hand, deflecting the bullet and saving his life. Macy, who is climbing a pole to return some money he has stolen, is knocked off and lands on his face, bloodying him and knocking out most of his teeth. And so forth.
What does it all mean? I haven’t a clue, and I don’t think I was supposed to have one. This is a case where the journey is so interesting that I don’t really care where it all ends up. Because in real life, things never really end up, short of death, do they? All these people (except the old man) will continue to blunder through life, like we all do, doing the best we can.
One very weird bit of trivia: According to the IMDb, the film is 3.14159 hours long, to within a second or so. That is the first six digits of pi. You work it out if you want to. I’m not going to bother.