My favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman role: Magnolia’s Phil the nurse

My favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman role: Magnolia’s Phil the nurse February 3, 2014

The 1999 film Magnolia is perhaps my favorite movie of all time. It’s about a tangled up web of really screwed up people who are connected with show business in some kind of way and all live in the vicinity of Magnolia Boulevard in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles. There are only two main characters who are somewhat emotionally stable, a cop named Jim (played by John C. Reilly) and a hospice nurse named Phil (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). It was a sad, bitter irony to hear of Hoffman’s heroin overdose today. I haven’t seen a lot of his movies, since I’m pretty culturally illiterate. Even if he had a lot of troubles in his real life, he will always be the hospice nurse Christ figure in my favorite movie.

In Magnolia, Phil the hospice nurse is assigned to in-home care for Earl Partridge, the former producer of a whiz kid game show that the movie’s script revolves around. Earl is dying of cancer. One of his main regrets in life is that he abandoned his wife Lilly when she had been dying of cancer leaving his teenage son Frank to take care of his mom. Frank (played by Tom Cruise) has channeled his rage against his father into a career as a professional misogynist self-help guru who gives seminars to men on how to manipulate women into having sex with them. Earl’s dying wish, which he shares with Phil the hospice nurse, is to be reunited to his son Frank.

One of the most beautifully awkward scenes in the film is when Phil calls a grocery delivery place to get some porn magazines not because he wants to look at naked women but in order to get the 1-800 number for Frank’s misogyny guru service. There’s something very beautiful to me about a man who goes through the humiliation of ordering porn magazines in a phone conversation with a woman as a purely self-sacrificial gesture in order to help his client get in touch with his son.

When Phil calls the 1-800 number, he has this awesome meta-monologue with the guy on the other hand of the phone: “I know this sounds silly and I might sound ridiculous like this is the scene in the movie where the guy is trying to get a hold of the long-lost son, you know but this is that scene, and I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, you know, because they really happen… I can give you my number and you can go check with whoever you’ve got to check with and call me back, but do not leave me hanging on this, please… See, this is the scene of the movie where you help me out.”

Phil gets physically assaulted by Earl’s young gold-digger wife Linda (played by Julianne Moore) when she catches him on the phone trying to reach Frank. Linda ends up trying to commit suicide because she feels so guilt-ridden about having married Earl for his money. Even though Phil gets cut off in his phone conversation before Frank can be reached, Frank finally comes out to the house and hears his father say I love you with his last breath. At the end of the movie, Frank goes to the hospital to visit Linda. They become a family that never would have existed without the intervention of Phil the nurse.

As a pastor, I have more interactions with hospice nurses than a regular person because 2-3 times a year someone from our church goes into hospice care and dies. I think that Philip Seymour Hoffman captures the ethos of the hospice nurse even in the limited screen-time that he has. He and Jim the cop are the two angels of the film. They are like the ministers of reconciliation that the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5. What makes Magnolia so beautiful is that it shows the devastating chain-reactions that sin causes in peoples’ lives very realistically but at the same time, it offers a hopeful vision of redemption.

In other words, I see in Phil the nurse and Jim the cop beautiful exemplars for what Christian intervention in the world could look like, as opposed to the ghastly, power-lustful culture wars that so grossly misrepresent what we’re supposed to be about. Phil the nurse and Jim the cop are like Jedi knights for peace and hope. One of my favorite scenes in the film is a sing-along to a song called “Wise up” by Aimee Mann whose lyrics seem to speak to addicts and desperate people. The scene begins with Phil’s emotional reaction to having to administer a potent dose of morphine to Earl which basically initiates his active dying process.

It seems appropriate to play this song and shed a few tears for a beautiful person who ended up losing the battle with his demons. I want to believe that even if we end badly, God keeps in mind all the beautiful things we did before the end.

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  • i’ve always loved magnolia and am so sad to hear of philip seymour hoffman’s death. he was one of the very best.

  • Dan Guy

    Way to make me tear up, Morgan, remembering Magnolia…

    I wrote about Officer Jim and what he means to me, and PTA’s movies in general, a while back:

    http://www.cryptocatholic.com/2011/12/love-and-forgiveness-in-the-fallen-worlds-of-paul-thomas-anderson/

    • MorganGuyton

      I love Officer Jim!

  • MCC

    Fell in love with Mr. Hoffman’s heart watching this movie. He showed us his heart so unselfishly in this movie…and we were so deeply touched by what we saw. Imagine if we could all learn to share our heart’s as graciously as he did. Maybe that was his purpose here, if only for a short while. My thought’s return again, & again, to his children and their Mom. His absence for them, indescribable. We’re better for having been exposed to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, Phil the Nurse. Pass it on.