Though he’s only made seven films, Paul Thomas Anderson has nonetheless made an indelible mark upon American cinema, evoking the likes of Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick, but able to form a voice all his own. This December, his latest film, Inherent Vice, hits theaters, so the Movie Mezzanine staff took it upon themselves to go through his work and remind ourselves why Mr. Anderson is so often cited as one of the best working directors in Hollywood.
Hard Eight (1996)
In the catalog of PT Anderson’s career, Hard Eight is probably the least appreciated of all his work. It fails to highlight his ability to interweave countless different narratives into an all-encompassing piece. The story also is far less compelling than a lot of his later pictures. What Hard Eight does manage is Anderson’s uncanny ability to pull spectacular performances from his actors. The crime drama features the work of Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, and Gwyneth Paltrow, providing what is arguably their best work and assured them plenty of work for years afterwards. Hard Eight lures audiences into what at first amounts to a feel good story, another trait that can be seen throughout Anderson’s work. Boogie Nights (1997) and There Will Be Blood (2007) also show the quick rise to success and how short lasting that success was. In the case of Hard Eight, John (Reilly) also gets his fair share of good fortune with the help of Sydney (Hall) and the casinos. Hard Eight might be his weakest feature, but even a poor PT Anderson film is well above average. – Max Covill
Boogie Nights (1997)
Hard Eight established Paul Thomas Anderson as a young talent to watch, but Boogie Nights turned him into a bona fide prodigy. At the worldly age of 27 (go ahead, I dare you to think about where you were in life on your twenty-seventh birthday), Anderson completed what already felt like a magnum opus. His two-and-a-half hour porno epic triangulates America’s position as it slid from the decadent ‘70s to the moral bankruptcy of the ‘80s, delivers a powerful address on the state of analog vs. digital cinema, and follows a motley crew of tireless strivers as they attempt to carve out some small piece of this world to call their own. It’s Anderson’s thesis statement, a crystal clear declaration of intent for the rest of his estimable body of work. He expertly synthesizes influences (he writes dialogue like Cassavetes, shoots like Scorsese, and embodies Altman’s generous compassion for human life) without getting smug or derivative, blends humor with nerve-shredding tension (the scene at Rahad Jackson’s is virtuosic) and plumbs the depths of the darkness of which men are capable.
But Anderson nests an intimately personal statement within his sprawling saga of dreamers and failures. The man who cobbled together a budget for his first film from loans and borrowed credit cards spent a fair amount of his second feature walking viewers through the myriad particulars of independent filmmaking. Burt Reynolds’ hangdog porn auteur Jack Horner explains how easily the demands of production can mount during an early scene. His hopes and frustrations closely mirror those of the hotshot boy genius that gave — and continues to give — American cinema a name to be proud of. – Charles Bramesco
An operatic descent into the lives of lost souls in the San Fernando Valley, Magnolia is Anderson’s three-hour melodramatic epic about the nature of forgiveness. A huge ensemble cast of characters including a former child star, a game show host, a police officer, a pick-up artist, and a dying TV producer are all intertwined by blood, circumstance, and trauma as they try to let go of their anger and reach out to their fellow man. Magnolia is Anderson’s most nakedly emotional film because it takes seriously the small-scale dramas that ensconce its characters, like family estrangement, drug addiction, and financial desperation. Its emotional tone reads like an EKG, filled with shrill rants one minute and quiet monologues the next, all backed by Jon Brion’s booming melancholic score. Many write off Magnolia as a loud, overly maudlin film that pummels its audience into submission, and its heart-on-its-sleeve approach accepts that reading with open arms, but take another look: it’s a powerfully optimistic film that believes in humans’ capacity for compassion and understanding. The characters in Magnolia are all hanging by a thread as they look over into the darkness below waiting to consume them. Anderson knows that our best moments occur at this moment, when we’re forced to accept the help and love just out of reach. The everyday tragedies that befall us don’t have to be our downfall. It’s okay. These strange things happen all the time. – Vikram Murthi
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) doesn’t know what the hell is going on, and he’s about had it. Most of his life, he’s played punching bag to his sisters, and now, after declining a call girl’s strong-armed invitation to pay her rent, a literal one to her army of brothers. To make things worse, he’s falling in love—maybe for the first time, hopefully for the last.
By Punch-Drunk Love’s 2002 release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s affinity for lost boys and souls tempest-tossed had been well-established. His films examine outsiders, renegades and misfit types who reject standard societal codes, consciously or otherwise. Anderson supports his predilection for lone soldiers such as Boogie Nights porn legend Dirk Diggler and Magnolia‘s testosterone-fueled dating coach Frank Mackey with a directing style that chucks conventional film structure. Logically sound plots and A + B roadmaps aren’t appropriate vehicles for where he’s going; he instead commissions the immaterial: elaborate yet nuanced characters, set designs that pack every inch with purpose, and an uncanny knack for harnessing the best from his actors (like the bottomless well that was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s versatility).
While Anderson’s usual traits are accounted for—a conspicuous, often discordant soundtrack; cracks at consumerism; strokes of surrealism—Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson’s first feature-length dance with romance. Instead of the sprawling multi-character panoramas of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson focuses on one oddball individual, magnifying our intimacy towards this outsider and his interpersonal relationships. In taking this approach, Anderson offered Adam Sandler an opportunity to put forth his most convincing argument as a serious actor, constructing a character that added retroactive depth to his previous performances playing dime-a-dozen hopeless, hapless romantics.
Joel Coen said, “It’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” If ever a film career embodied this, Anderson’s is it, with Punch-Drunk Love fitting in perfectly with his idiosyncratic vision. – Melissa Weller