The Work of Paul Thomas Anderson


A goal I hope to achieve for the first half of this summer is to watch at least one movie every day, going by director. I’m hoping to watch films by Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Robert Altman, Wes Anderson, Joel & Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, and perhaps more. This past week, I watched every film of Paul Thomas Anderson. Almost all of his movies are different from one another, but each share deeply flawed characters; similar cinematic techniques, such as long, uninterrupted takes and rapid camera movements; nostalgic American backdrops; themes of loneliness, alienation, the disintegration of familial relationships, and a surrogate/blood father/son dynamic between its protagonists. Below are my thoughts on each film:

Boogie Nights (1997)


After watching the trailer several times throughout high school, I was excited to finally watch “Boogie Nights” for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised. Though it is rather lengthy and over-the-top, “Boogie Nights” is a charming, poignant film that’s part sex comedy, part coming-of-age story. A young Mark Wahlberg, who was then simply known as the frontman of the hip-hop group Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch, shines in his breakout role as Eddie Adams, a neglected youth who becomes a famous porn star named Dirk Diggler after catching the eye of porn producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). The father/son relationship is immediately established, especially since Eddie wants to escape from his disdainful alcoholic mother and impotent father. Wahlberg is then gradually joined by an incredible ensemble cast that includes Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, and Heather Graham. The film is set in the 1970s and the production/set designers did a really great job of recreating that period, both in its aesthetic style and political atmosphere. The engaging soundtrack was also a great fit for “Boogie Nights,” using tracks from The Emotions, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, and other ’70s bands. As mentioned in the trailer, the late ’70s was a time when “sex was safe, pleasure was a business, and business was booming.” Business, of course, was referring to the burgeoning porn industry, which eventually went through a drastic change when, at the beginning of the 1980s, analog film was converted into videotape, the “future” of porn. Thus, the plot shifts into darker territory, as life becomes less glamorous and the characters lose touch with reality. Every character, whether small or big, has a magnetic personality, as well as some flaw that marks them as both realistic and relatable. Doing drugs and committing acts of violence seem more dangerous than fun. But, of course, Eddie/Dirk and the rest of the cast realize sooner or later that things need to change. Anderson really has a firm grasp of creating interesting, nuanced characters through tantalizing dialogue, all the while immersing the viewer into the lives and worlds of those characters. He didn’t rush at all with character development or focus on pushing the plot along. In addition to his wonderful direction, the camera and actors did most of the work and that’s all “Boogie Nights” really needed.

Grade: A-

Magnolia (1999)


In addition to “Boogie Nights,” I was also very excited to watch “Magnolia,” though I was apprehensive due to its 3-hour long length. Nevertheless, I was awed by it. “Magnolia” is a sprawling, epic, and ambitious piece of work, a spellbinding creative mess that can be seen as both a religious allegory and a haunting melodrama about shattered families and children. Its plot focuses on the intersecting lives of depressed Los Angelenos living in the San Fernando Valley. Similar to “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” possesses a fantastic ensemble cast and each performance is exceptional and dynamic. The film shifts and moves at a deliberate pace, making each character’s face seen and voice heard. There’s no real protagonist, since almost all of the characters have an equally divided amount of screen time. There’s Tom Cruise’s T.J. Mackey, an intense, overtly masculine self-help guru who teaches men how to “respect the cock” and “tame the cunt,” essentially telling them how to attract women at their own will. He’s the son of a dying TV producer named Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his final film role before his death in 2000), who left T.J. when he was a kid. Partridge’s vulgar, mentally unstable gold-digger wife is Linda, played ferociously by Julianne Moore. Partridge’s TV show “What Do Kids Now?” (similar to “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”) is hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who is diagnosed with cancer and struggles to grapple his mortality and his own inner demons. His estranged, cocaine-addicted daughter Rose (played a little too aggressively by Melinda Dillion) wants to escape her shitty life as well. A contestant on Gator’s show is the shy boy genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), who’s being bullied by his heartless father to win, win, win the contest. William H. Macy plays an ex-contestant named Donnie Smith, whose past glory as the show’s “Quiz Kid” fades quickly in his adulthood, where he’s so unhappy with himself that he wants to invest in braces in order to woo a buff, brace-faced bartender. I don’t want to give too much plot description; there’s plenty of it on Wikipedia and from the film’s trailer. But you start to notice a thematic pattern here that seems unprecedented, especially since they all seem to be connected through coincidences and certain circumstances. Yet, as pointed out in “Magnolia”‘s poetic opening montage, things don’t just happen based on coincidence or chance. There’s always some reason and it doesn’t always have an explanation. But when people need help, take the opportunity to help them. John C. Reilly plays police officer Jim Kurring, who becomes enamored by Rose, despite his blatant obliviousness to her drug tics. He helps her find a purpose to live, as well as with Donnie in a later sequence. Philip Seymour Hoffman (damn, I freakin’ miss this guy) inhabits the role of Partridge’s tender nurse Phil Parma, who patiently listen to the old man’s desires, distresses, and regrets. “Magnolia” is filled with intense moments, accentuated by Aimee Mann’s somber soundtrack. One standout music moment comes when Mann’s “Wise Up” plays during a montage, as the camera captures each main character reciting and singing the lyrics, each of them alone and isolated from the world yet connected through song. Some of those intense moments don’t really reach full clarity until later, particularly during a surreal sequence towards the end, where frogs fall from the sky. It can be interpreted in several ways, but Anderson’s use of ambiguity works in “Magnolia” because it makes the film’s meaning that much more rich and intriguing. Even the title suggests a double entendre: it’s both a street name in Los Angeles and a yellowish/beige flower that unfolds to reveal a hidden inner beauty. Certain aspects of “Magnolia” still sort of bother me, particularly Moore’s overuse of cuss words, Dillion’s annoyingly desperate character, and the fact that it’s 3 hours long. Yet the enigmatic “Magnolia” was still wonderful to watch and perhaps I’ll watch it again one day.

Grade: B+

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)


I instantly fell in love with “Punch-Drunk Love,” not just for its refreshing simplicity — it’s spans only 95 minutes, Anderson’s shortest film —  but also for the genuinely touching romance between the movie’s central couple. In what is probably the best performance of his entire career, Adam Sandler triumphs as Barry Egan, an introverted but caring man who wears a blue suit for the entirety of the film (except for one scene, in which he has a bathrobe on). Barry has sporadic fits of intense rage, usually provoked by the emotional and verbal abuse of his demonic 7 sisters, who constantly remind him of the childhood nickname they gave him (“Gay Boy”) and when he threw a hammer at a window as a kid. But even when he’s not smashing windows, Barry is working hard at a plain job that involves selling novelty toilet plungers. Throughout the first half of “Punch-Drunk Love,” the camera focuses on Barry’s loneliness, positioning his figure adjacent to an empty space. During the first sequence, he witnesses a strange car crash in the wee hours of the morning and an unrelated mysterious vehicle screeches by, dropping off a harmonium on the sidewalk. There’s no explanation for this, but we would probably react the same way Barry did: walking up to it, then running away from it, and hiding behind a corner to see if it’s still there. A few moments later, Barry meets the lovely Lena (played by a stunning Emily Watson), who asks if he can watch her car in the company parking lot for a few minutes while she runs an errand. Their relationship continues, once it’s revealed that Lena is a co-worker of one of Barry’s sisters, perhaps the most emotionally abusive one. But Barry runs into an issue early on, a subplot that elevates “Punch-Drunk Love”‘s romantic dramedy setup. During one lonely night, he calls up a phone-sex line and later receives a call from the same woman, who threatens to extort money from him. Despite his aforementioned rage and inner turmoil, Barry remains calm, cool, and collected and decides to ask Lena on a date. Their date is an incredibly orchestrated and well-acted sequence — definitely my favorite of Anderson’s — and shows Sandler’s understated acting range. First, Barry quietly explains to Lena a loophole he found in Healthy Choice products as a means of acquiring millions of American Airlines frequent flier miles. She’s fascinated by this, but when Lena reiterates a story from Barry’s childhood to lighten the mood, Barry becomes visibly triggered, excuses himself from the table, and goes to destroy the restaurant’s bathroom. He comes back, only to be asked to leave for destroying the bathroom. It’s a truly captivating sequence, hilarious and devastating all at once. To get away from his troubles with the phone sex worker, Barry decides to go to Hawaii with Lena and their romance blossoms from there. When they return, he’s no longer afraid. As Sandler says so eloquently in the film, he has a love in his heart and it makes him stronger than anyone can imagine. When you think about it, love really does make you feel invincible. He says this to the sex worker’s boss Dean Trumball, a Utah mattress store owner played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though Hoffman only appears in the movie for less than 10 minutes, his presence is very welcoming, offering both comic relief and gravitas. The other elements of “Punch-Drunk Love” also work very well. Jon Brion — my favorite film composer — constructs the beautiful, sweeping minimalist score of “Punch-Drunk Love,” which I listened to endlessly way before I even saw the film. Color and tone play an important role in the film, Barry’s blue suit contrasting against Lena’s red outfits, suggesting a yin and yang balance in their relationship. The blue suit also blends in with the colors of Barry’s workplace, indicating a monotony in his life that is subsequently broken by Lena’s appearance. There’s no Andersonian father/son dynamic, but there are fantastic long takes, sumptuous wide shots, and intimate extreme close-ups. The harmonium is a visual motif that remains rather ambiguous, but it holds a thread between Barry and Lena’s romantic connection. Overall, “Punch-Drunk Love” is a beautiful, poignant film that I would honestly recommend to anyone, even those most cynical towards Sandler.

Grade: A

There Will Be Blood (2007)


Alas, I was excited to watch “There Will Be Blood,” knowing that it drew acclaim upon its release and was considered a masterpiece and one of the best films of the 2000s. It certainly lived up to the hype. Despite some flaws within the film’s framework (lack of female characters for one thing), “There Will Be Blood” is a harrowing period portrait of early American capitalism, seen through the journey of greedy, misanthropic oilman Daniel Plainview (played marvelously by Daniel Day-Lewis). Spanning several decades between the late 1800s and the late 1920s, “There Will Be Blood” twists and turns, spurring as much intense drama and Aristotelian tragedy as the oil Daniel discovers underneath the American soil. Plainview plays a father figure, literally towards his adopted son H.W. and figuratively towards a devoutly religious preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, arguably one of the most underrated actors of our generation). With both “sons,” Daniel showcases his hatred towards others, using H.W. as a business front for his “family man” persona and taunting Eli simply because he wants to bless a water well that Daniel has built in Eli’s town, Little Boston. This starts a chain of events that only makes things worse for Plainview, even though he becomes successful with his oil business. H.W. goes deaf after an explosion at the well, whom Daniel believes is now useless and thus sends his to a school for the deaf in San Francisco. Eli becomes increasingly annoying to Daniel and their relationship becomes even more turbulent when they meet again in 1927 towards the end of the film. Day-Lewis’ incredible portrayal of Plainview is both grueling and captivating to watch, balancing a charismatic appeal with an outward bitterness. One could argue that, unlike other Andersonian characters, Plainview doesn’t have any redeeming qualities whatsoever, considering that he abandoned and later disowned his child, publicly humiliated Eli, killed a man posing as his long-lost half-brother, and generally being an asshole towards those who threaten his oil empire. But there is one small, silent flashback scene towards the end that does show Plainview has a heart deep down, as he is seen playing with a pre-deaf H.W., suggesting that perhaps he did love the boy after all, but that his ambition blinded him from living a happier life. Other aspects I liked about “There Will Be Blood” include the ominous score created by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, the consistently ravishing cinematography, and the religious undertones. Oh, and spoiler alert for those who still haven’t seen this film: there was indeed blood. A lot.

Grade: A-

The Master (2012)


Again, “The Master” is another P.T. Anderson picture that I was very excited to see and I was not let down. Set in the late 1940s, “The Master” is a beautifully shot, supremely well-acted tale of post-WWII depression and anxiety in America and the beginnings of dogmatic religious groups (it’s based loosely off of L. Ron Hubbard, the leader of Scientology). Joaquin Phoenix — another incredibly talented actor and one of our generation’s best — stars as the sex-obsessed, raging alcoholic drifter Freddie Quell, who is reeling back into reality after fighting in the war. He finds a job at a department store photographer, but gets in trouble after assaulting a customer. He gets another job as a migrant worker, but accidentally poisons a co-worker from a self-made alcoholic beverage (think a mix of moonshine and Jungle Juice). Wherever he goes, bad things seem to follow Freddie, especially when he becomes a stowaway on a ship commandeered by the titular character Lancaster Dodd (played marvelously by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the “master” of “The Cause,” a movement of sorts whose core message is to help rid people of their inner demons and provoke within them a spiritual, personal awakening. Although many hate Freddie for his recklessness and feral behavior, Dodd takes an interest in him and the two develop a father/son relationship, in which Dodd is the stern but loving father and Freddie is his childish son. Over the course of the film, Freddie enters into the lives of Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), their deceptive daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), their skeptical son (“Breaking Bad”‘s Jesse Plemons), and their devoted son-in-law (“Mr. Robot”‘s Rami Malek). Themes of repression and loneliness come to light, especially during one intense sequence between Dodd and Freddie, in which Dodd asks a series of invasively personal questions to Freddie, who must answer them in rapid succession. We learn that Freddie’s father died, his mother was institutionalized, he had an incestuous relationship with his aunt, and didn’t return to the love of his life after the war like he said he would. Phoenix plays this scene so well and acutely, and continues to do so throughout the rest of “The Master.” This film contains also perhaps Anderson’s best cinematography; it was shot on 65 mm film, giving “The Master” an exceptionally authentic and crispy aesthetic. The production/set design doesn’t disappoint either, capturing the mood and fashion of the 1940s, making each character look as picturesque as their historical counterparts. Jonny Greenwood returns as the film’s composer, mixing operatic strings, angelic harp plucks, and percussive tones to evoke the film’s sense of dread and seriousness. Even though “The Master” has an ambiguous, somewhat head-scratching resolution, Anderson continues to show that well-crafted characters, dialogue, and imagery are enough to make a movie thought-provoking and interesting, even when the plot doesn’t reach full coherence.

Grade: A-

Inherent Vice (2014)


Speaking of lack of coherence, “Inherent Vice” is one of Anderson’s films that I had certain issues with, in terms of its confusing, convoluted plot and its irritating narrator (voiced by Joanna Newsom, whom I still love as a music artist and as Andy Samberg’s wife). Adapted from Timothy Pynchon’s 2009 novel and set in 1970, “Inherent Vice” plays out very similarly to 1998’s “The Big Lebowski”: it’s a bizarre neo-noir stoner comedy with a satirical take on the American lifestyle, but doesn’t really have a clear sense of what direction it’s going. Nevertheless, Anderson hearkens back to his early films with another incredible and surprisingly diverse ensemble cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Katherine Waterson, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, and Josh Brolin, as well cameos from Anderson’s wife and “SNL” alum Maya Rudolph and “The Wire”‘s Michael K. Williams. Phoenix plays the hippie dopehead P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a man with a liking towards cannabis and wacky hairstyles. He becomes mixed up in the crime underground, tackling three different mysterious cases that involve four missing people. One is Glen Carlock, a white supremacist ex-con who owes Doc’s client money; another is saxophone-playing police informant Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) who wants to drop out the operation he was tasked to do in order to return to his wife (Jena Malone) and their daughter; the last two are the film’s most prominent victims, Mickey Wolfmann, a missing real estate millionaire believed to be in an insane asylum, and his girlfriend and Doc’s ex Shasta (Katherine Waterson). Doc does his best to acquire as many details as possible, even though he keeps getting caught up with other surprises like a psychotic pedophiliac dentist (Martin Short) and Doc’s flat-topped cop frenemy “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an excellent Josh Brolin). The tone and pacing of “Inherent Vice” match Doc’s, moving in several directions while following clues that lead to dark places. But then again, like “The Big Lebowski,” this film is less about plot and more about characters, dialogue, and atmosphere, which Anderson succeeds in capturing. “Inherent Vice” recreates the early 1970s almost immaculately, not just in costuming but also in post-60s paranoia, where cops became worried about Charles Manson-esque cults. Next to “Boogie Nights,” “Inherent Vice” is another sexually frank and violent film. There’s one very long, continuous take shot at an uncomfortable angle, in which a fully nude Shasta sexually teases Doc until they finally mate. Even with moments of darkness, “Inherent Vice” has a tender center, which is especially apparent in one wondrous flashback scene where Doc and Shasta run in the rain to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past.” I would say that I was disappointed by “Inherent Vice” during my initial viewing, but I hope that I can watch “Inherent Vice” again to just simply watch and enjoy it instead of scrutinizing its ambiguity.

Grade: B

Hard Eight (1996)


I decided to watch Anderson’s first feature film, “Hard Eight,” last, since I was eager to watch “Boogie Nights.” However, “Hard Eight” unexpectedly became my favorite Anderson film by far. Like “Punch-Drunk Love,” I loved “Hard Eight” for its simplicity, its stirring dialogue, low-key cinematography, and above all, its compelling characters. Philip Baker Hall gives a wonderful performance as Sydney, a mysterious elder man who finds John Finnegan (John C. Reilly), a down-on-his-luck drifter who’s lost everything. Sydney offers his help, despite John’s hesitancy, and slowly the two become close friends — perhaps a surrogate father/son — over coffee and cigarettes. They travel to Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, where Sydney teaches John how to make money at casinos without paying so much or even gambling. Cut to two years later and John seems to be back on his feet and still close with Sydney, even dressing like him and ordering the same drinks as him. They meet Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow), a flirty cocktail waitress/prostitute who wins the affection of John, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a security worker whom Sydney immediately distrusts. Hall’s portrayal of Sydney is so authentic, honest, and layered, his character speaking with a precision and verbal dexterity that makes him engaging. But as “Hard Eight” unravels into much darker territory, Sydney slowly unravels as well, with his open regrets and violent side showing that there’s more than meets the eye. This makes Sydney (and Hall’s performance) all the more emotionally complex. The other performances are great as well, especially a young Reilly and Jackson. There’s even a small but intriguing cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman as an arrogant hothead who challenges Sydney in blackjack. This film works on many levels, not just as a slow-burning drama, but as an intricate look at father/son dynamics and taking risks for the sake of protecting the well-being of others. Composers Michael Penn and Jon Brion contributed another great original score. Aesthetically, “Hard Eight” is gorgeous to look at — a casino has never seemed more flashy and glamorous. Even though this was Anderson’s first film, “Hard Eight” was an awesome last film to watch.

Grade: A


One thought on “The Work of Paul Thomas Anderson

  1. Nice retrospective. I wasn’t as much of a fan of There Will Be Blood and The Master as you are (Boogie Nights remains my favorite PTA film). And I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who thought Inherent Vice was the same movie as The Big Lebowski.


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