In his relatively short time directing films, Paul Thomas Anderson has been called a rock star, a genius, an artist who knows no limits, the most devout filmmaker of his generation, and even the best film director in the world. Anderson has secured a spot in the hearts of most cinephiles generally reserved for dearly departed masters like Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick. Somewhere along the line, Anderson transformed from the latest cinematic wunderkind to the new American master.
As such, there are hundreds of articles (justifiably) praising the new golden boy of American cinema, but few of them acknowledge Anderson’s flaws as a filmmaker, or else they work overtime to explain them away. Let’s play devil’s advocate and look at those flaws head-on.
Anderson’s career neatly divides into two distinct eras. The first batch of films find an ambitious, nakedly sentimental Anderson wearing his cinematic influences on his sleeves, often to a fault.
Boogie Nights is the epitome of this era in Anderson’s career, a breakthrough hit depicting the highs of the ‘70s porn industry and the inevitable ‘80s comedown. He couples an enormous, Altman-esque cast of characters with the epic tracking shots and endless pop-music montages of Scorsese. There’s even a dash of Tarantino’s signature blend of tension and pop-philosophy during an admittedly remarkable scene with Alfred Molina as a Rick Springfield-loving drug dealer.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s storytelling abilities can’t quite match his ambition and considerable technical prowess. The film bends over backwards to accommodate its overstuffed ensemble of characters. Anderson has affection for his band of misfits even if he often doesn’t give them the depth they deserve. This is humanism without the emotional complexity to make the characters seem truly human. Talented actors like Don Cheadle and Philip Seymour Hoffman manage to elevate their underserved roles to worthwhile characters, despite their undeveloped and uneven arcs. Even Mark Wahlberg’s porn star protagonist never quite attains the depth necessary to make his coked-up fall from grace resonate or feel original.
Magnolia, Anderson’s next film, feels a bit like Boogie Nights with the fun sucked out. In likely his most ambitious film to date, Anderson turns everything up to 11, totally obliterating any sense of humor or subtlety in service of a clumsy melodrama about how all our lives are interconnected. Although some of his bolder choices pay off, Magnolia is a misstep stronger in concept than in execution. Instead of using the three-hour runtime to develop his characters and their stories, Anderson gives each characters one thing to do; so much of the runtime is spent cutting between inactive characters looking as depressed as possible while an unending orchestral score drowns out much of the dialogue.
This minor but irritating Anderson-ism of relying too heavily on score continues in Punch Drunk Love, which at least narrows the focus and takes the time to establish its deeply-wounded protagonist. Adam Sandler’s Barry is a cripplingly insecure man, prone to violent outbursts.
Barry may be well-drawn—and if Sandler’s performance doesn’t prove Anderson’s gift with actors, none will—but the same can’t be said for his love interest. Lena, played by Emily Watson, quickly succumbs to manic pixie dream girl syndrome; she is less a person herself than she is a plot device to blindly accept Barry’s faults and lies and violent tendencies so he can overcome his issues, no questions asked. Anderson ultimately sacrifices Barry’s complexity by suggesting all of Barry’s problems can be solved by a relationship he clearly isn’t ready for in service of a tired “power of love” theme.
Now we enter a second era of Anderson. His more recent films demonstrate stricter focus—zeroing in on monolithic characters that personify the changes and anxieties of their respective periods in American history—but they often feel strangely cold, sacrificing Anderson’s sense of fun.
With There Will Be Blood, the director created his most well-made film to date but seemingly forgot to give viewers anything to latch onto. Blood is an icy character study indebted to the films of Stanley Kubrick in its cinematography, his scope, and unfortunately, its distance from the characters. The film spends most of its energy condemning the depths of greed and deceit displayed by Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday—two highly detestable manifestations of American industry and religion respectively.
The Master, his least accessible film to date, finds Anderson making many of the same mistakes as he did in There Will Be Blood. Again, the film hinges on the often-combative relationship between two larger-than-life men. Despite predictably stellar performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s nearly impossible to invest in, let alone enjoy, this plotless character study in which the chief characters remain unknowable and enigmatic no matter how much time we spend with them.
If Anderson’s career is divided into these two eras, the stoner neo-noir Inherent Vice is the point where the two meet. The director’s latest effort synthesizes his early sense of humor and Altman-obsession with themes more specific to his latter-day films—specifically the ways in which American society corrupts or else abandons its morals as the times change. Despite another broad cast of characters, the uneasy relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s perpetually-high private eye Doc and Josh Brolin’s clean-cut cop Bigfoot anchors the film. Unlike Freddie Quell or Daniel Plainview, Doc is funny and bright and fun to hang out with, but his motives and emotions remain murky throughout. Murkier still is the endlessly unfolding plot, complicated even by noir standards, which frustratingly hints at a vast conspiracy without ever sitting still long enough to pin it down.
If nothing else, the divisive Inherent Vice points ahead to an uncertain future for the often-difficult but always-interesting Anderson. To his credit, he’s never been one to shy away from change and new endeavors in his filmmaking career, endeavors that should spark lively discussion and debate.
The point of this article was not to condemn Anderson as a hack but to encourage discussion and consider the arguments against a much-beloved director. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with praising Anderson’s work. The issue arises when film critics and moviegoers deify a director like Anderson to the extent that they shut out criticism and blind themselves to the spirited debate that makes film discussion worthwhile. And at the very least, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson are worth discussing.
– Jeff Rindskopf