The film opens with a narrator asking to consider the meaning of three urban legends and the role of chance in life.
Police officer Jim Kurring is sent to investigate a disturbance and finds a body but is unable to apprehend a suspect, despite the fact that a neighborhood boy tries to tell him (by rapping) who committed the murder. From there Jim goes to Claudia Wilson’s apartment, where the neighbors complained of her loud music after she rejected her dying father’s attempt at reconciliation. Claudia is a cocaine addict, and her father is famous children’s game show host Jimmy Gator. Jim likes her and prolongs the visit, and talks her into a date before he leaves.
That night the newest child prodigy on Jimmy Gator’s show, Stanley Spector, takes the lead as the show begins. He is hounded by his father for the prize money and demeaned by the surrounding adults, who refuse to let him use the bathroom during a commercial break. When the show resumes, he wets himself and freezes, humiliated when everyone realizes what happened. As the show continues Jimmy sickens, and he orders the show to go on after he collapses onstage. But after Stanley’s father berates him for freezing on air, Stanley refuses to return for the final round.
Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former “What Do Kids Know?” champion, watches the show from a bar. Donnie is obsessed with getting oral surgery, thinking he will land the man of his dreams after he gets braces, and he becomes despondent when he is fired. He hatches a plan to get back at his boss by breaking in and stealing the money he needs for his braces.The show’s former producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying of cancer. Earl’s trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), collects his prescriptions for morphine while he is cared for by a nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl asks Phil to find his estranged son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a narcissist who is peddling a pick-up artist self-help course to men. Frank is in the midst of an interview when Phil finally gets through to him.
Linda goes to see Earl’s lawyer, begging him to change Earl’s will. She admits she married Earl for his money, but now loves him and doesn’t want it. The lawyer suggests she renounce the will and refuse the money, which would then go to Frank. Linda rejects his advice and leaves in a rage. When she gets home Linda berates Phil for seeking out Frank, but later apologizes, before going out to her car and taking all the pills she’s collected. The boy who tried to help Jim catch the murderer finds Linda in her car, near death, and calls an ambulance after taking money from her purse.
Before his date with Claudia, Jim takes fire during a pursuit and loses his gun. When he meets Claudia they promise to be honest with each other, so he confesses his ineptitude as a cop and admits he has not been on a date since he was divorced three years ago. Claudia says he will hate her because of her problems, but Jim assures her they don’t matter. They kiss, but she runs off.
Jimmy Gator goes home to his wife Rose and suddenly tells her he cheated on her. She asks why Claudia does not talk to him, and Jimmy admits that Claudia believes he molested her. But when he says he cannot remember whether or not he did, Rose tells Jimmy he deserves to die alone, and she walks out on him. Jimmy decides to kill himself.Meanwhile Donnie lets himself into his old office but his key breaks in the lock. As he drives away with the money, he realizes the foolishness of what he is doing and goes back but can’t get in because of the broken key. Jim is driving by as Donnie climbs up a utility pole to get in through the roof and stops the car to see what he is doing. Suddenly, they are all in the midst of a raining animal event, with frogs falling from the sky. As Jimmy is about to shoot himself, frogs fall through his skylight, causing him to shoot the TV instead. Rose crashes her car en route to Claudia’s apartment. Earl dies as Frank watches. Donnie is knocked from the pole and smashes his teeth, while Jim’s gun falls from the sky and lands in front of him. As the rain of frogs ceases, Rose and Claudia are reconciled.
After Jim helps Donnie replace the money, he goes to see Claudia, telling her he wants to make things work between them; she smiles in reply. Frank goes to visit Linda, who is recovering in the hospital. Stanley, on his way to bed, tells his father that he needs to be nicer to him.
The narrator reminds us to consider once more the coincidences from the stories at the beginning of the film.
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