The movie intertwines the lives of its nine main characters. All of them are interrelated through the show, What Do Kids Know. Earl Patridge, the former successful producer of the show, is in his last days. He has a terminal cancer stage, and is often in pain. He vents out guilt and regret over the family he neglected in the past. Linda, his second, young wife, runs errands for him to compensate for the guilt she feels over marrying him just because of his money, and expresses remorse why she only fell in love with him in the last stages of his life. Phil, Earl’s private nurse, cares for Earl like a father, and he helps him locate Earl’s estranged son, Frank. Frank is the creator and host of a self-help program for men with relationship issues, and claims that his father died years ago. He hides his anguish under obnoxious pretense, and tries to conceal the pain of his father's abandonment by lying about his past. Jimmy is the legendary host of Earl’s erstwhile TV show. He is dying of cancer also.
His doting wife Rose attends to him. Jimmy later on confesses to Rose about his infidelities. Rose forgives him for that, but eventually leaves when she discovers that Jimmy molested their daughter Claudia. Claudia, their embittered daughter, ran away from home years ago and has become a drug addict in an attempt to escape from her pain. One day, her father visits her to tell her that he is dying, but she angrily throws her father out of her house. Jim, a lonely police officer, comes to her house after receiving a disturbance call from her neighbors. He instantly develops a connection with Claudia and awkwardly asks her on a date. Donnie is the whilom child wonder of Jimmy’s television show. He is disgruntled over his faded fame and now works as a salesman. In an attempt to get noticed by the object of his affection, Donnie has himself fitted for unnecessary braces. Stanley, the current child sensation of the show, lives for his father's selfish gains. Although the most popular among the game show contestants, Stanley feels like an outcast and longs for his father's affection.
Improbable events may seem so in the beginning. That is how the movie opens; narrating the inconceivable incidents that happened in the past. They are often categorized as coincidences, though some may seem too strange to be considered as that.
The movie tells the tale of a supposedly regular day on a street called Magnolia. It starts off with day-to-day routines of different people seemingly unattached to one another. As the day progresses, revelations about their lives begin to unfold and a web that connects them all becomes clearer. All characters are connected to each other because of their affiliation to the game show, What Do Kids Know. The fathers of the story, Earl and Jimmy, have lived their bountiful lives. Although in the later part of the story, their sinful past comes to collect their dues. They are both dying from cancer, and both of them are seeking reconciliation with their enraged children. Both their children reject their pleas for forgiveness, whilst Earl, who was finally reconciled with his son moments before he passed away. They also have devoted wives, who later in the day leave them to die alone.
Frank is the son of Earl, and Claudia is Jimmy's daughter. Both of them are children in pain because of their fathers' wrongdoings. They attempt to shun their past; Frank by denying and concealing information about his family, and Claudia by doing drugs.
Donnie and Jim are both lonely men seeking love. Donnie is secretly in love with the bartender of the place he frequents, but is always overseen. Jim enlists himself in a dating service to find a match, but to no avail.
Similar situations occur simultaneously. Jimmy, Donnie, Stanley and Jim are driven to the brink of a breakdown midway into the movie. In the game show scene, Jimmy collapses on air and finally realizes that he is too weak to continue his job. Stanley wet his pants because he was not allowed to go to the bathroom during the commercial break, and it caused him to be too ashamed to focus on the questions, hence they lost to their adult opponents. Donnie, who was fired from his job, seeks attention from the people from the bar as well as the object of his affection, only to be ridiculed and driven away. Jim, who was about to apprehend a jaywalker, loses his gun and cries out of frustration and fear of scorn from his fellow policemen. This is but one of the many events in the story related to the theory of synchronicity (Aziz), where people go through the same emotion at the same time. In this case, these people are interrelated and the grief of one somehow affiliated with the sorrow of the other. This movie creates a web wherein each character has a similar trait to the other, and they go through varied trials and tribulations of the same depth, all occurring and resolving in one day.
The movie also mirrors a common problem in society. With the difficult economic situations, parents are spending more time at work than at home. At times, some parents even exploit their children for monetary gains. For instance, as shown in the movie, Dixon is an unguided child who still roams the streets late at night and steals money from the nearly dead Linda. Stanley, a genius child, is only attended to by his father when he is in the game show, but still lacks the loving affection most children have. He attends the game show daily to cater to his father’s wishes of him being a record holder, thus earning more money. But the paramount example would have to be Frank, who was abandoned by his father when he was still a young boy. Frank, in his manhood, advocates male dominance in sexuality, in compensation for having not grown up with a father figure. In addition, Frank is in a constant state of anger, and even during the dying moments of his father, he is incapable of expressing what he truly feels and continues to curse his father instead. With the varied themes and issues presented, the issue of family and familial love is most resounding. The movie shows that at the end of the day, family is the most lucrative possession anyone can have.
Aziz, Robert. "Synchronicity and the Transformation of the Ethical in Jungian Psychology" in Carl B. Becker, ed. Asian and Jungian Views of Ethics. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.