What can I say about writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson that hasn’t already been said. Much like I discussed in my review of “Birdman”, PTA like Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu has had just as much of an influence on my developing a language in film, particularly in my more formative years growing up, than maybe any other filmmaker alive. When I was a teenager I vividly remember being so blown away by Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997) and his subsequent film “Magnolia” (1999) that they both changed the way I looked at film and became staples of late night viewings by both my friends and I. Each time I got more and more out of them (and depending on the head space I was in – sometimes a lot more. That being said, the rest of the films in this still very young 44-year old director’s career – he was 25 when his debut film – “Hard Eight” (1995) came out, 27 when he first received international acclaim for the Academy award nominated “Boogie Nights”, and 29 when he made his most ambitious film even still – 1999’s “Magnolia”. His next film – 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love” while ambitious, wound up being slightly underwhelming. Then a full five years following came 2007’s compelling and borderline brilliant, yet slightly overrated, “There Will Be Blood” (which featured a knockout performance by Daniel Day-Lewis). Only to take yet another 5 years off between it and his next film “The Master” (2012) that featured a few of the more outstanding performances by Joaquin Phoenix, the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Though while I really liked “The Master” and named it one of my top 5 favorite films of 2012, audiences seemed to be incredibly divided over it. I remember talking at the time to a number of different people who thought it was just much too dense for its own good. And while they certainly recognized the genius within the performances of its 3 strong leads, it was seen as overlong and overwrought, with a narrative that didn’t really have a cohesive flow. Enter 2014 (well, technically 2015, since it was only out in New York and L.A. in 2014) and PTA delivers us with yet his next film after just 2 short years off. This time adapting a screenplay from his source material. A novel by Thomas Pynchon and once again reteaming him with “The Master” star, 3 time Academy Award nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix, boasting his best looking ensemble cast since his “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” days.
The film starts out with a title card that shows us of its time and place – 1970 sun soaked southern California. A voiceover by Katherine Waterston’s character Shasta introduces us to the story. One that revolves around a long-hair and choppy side burned hippy Private Investigator – Doc “Sportello”, played by Phoenix doing his best Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski impression) who we quickly learn is one of the more sought after P.I.’s in the southern California area, even despite his constant pot smoking, beach bum persona. He’s one of those guys that people seem to have a hard time taking seriously, as any true hippy of that time in any position of his field could have been taken. Shasta, once a former flame of Sportello’s, tells him the story of a scandal involving her millionaire real estate boyfriend (played by Eric Roberts) who has recently gone missing under unknown circumstances. Doc is reluctant to take the case at first, until a man by the name of Tariq shows up one day at his office (the always reliable Michael Kenneth Williams from HBO’s “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”). Tariq explains to him that he spent some time in prison with a guy named Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson). The clues lead him to think that there’s some connection here and some very fishy going ons, and he sets out on a stoned out Sherlock Holmes-like mission after he is quickly framed for the murder of Charlock’s character in one of the most hilarious scenes in the film that takes place at one of those “rub and tug” sex shops where Doc goes searching for a lead. It is here that he wakes up next to the dead Charlock, and becomes the main suspect by the head of the town’s police department’s lead (played by Josh Brolin, in what is possibly his best role since he was nominated for 2009’s “Milk”). From there he goes on a weirdly subversive odyssey in seek of the truth, coming across a multitude of different characters who act as either ally or foe, some of whom are seen as adversaries and others allies in helping Doc connect the dots of hoping to seek the truth, in which he discovers a number of different secrets along the way.
This wound up being a beautiful, though utterly strange effort, into the continued wild, and unapologetic universe that is Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ll start off with what I liked about the film. First off was its incredible cast – ranging from all of the previous actors mentioned plus a plethora of other cameos by well-knowns like Reese Witherspoon (a Deputy D.A.), Owen Wilson (a male version of a femme fatale who seemed perfect for the role), Benicio Del Toro (as one of his allies playing a defense lawyer), Jena Malone (another character integral to the case), Keith Jardine (famous mix martial artist), and Maya Rudolph (of SNL fame and who just so happens to be PTA’s wife). Not to mention another sublime performance by Joaquin Phoenix, who after his recent roles of the past few years, is quickly rising up to be one of my favorite actors in the business. The tone of the film is very pulp-noiry and the dialogue is delivered in a unique fashion like something that could only be lifted straight out of a book (remember we’re in PTA territory here) which seems esoterically singular to maybe anything that’s ever been done in the auteur’s oeuvre to date. It’s so strangely surreal, so bizarrely staged, yet at the same time so funny, that if you give yourself into it you will undoubtably be rewarded. This being said, much like “The Master” it’s also a work that presents its fair share of challenges of audience expectations. Only fans of totally far out there art house cinema may only really be able to appreciate this. It comes across as a hodgepodge of different ideas, and the story often times seems muddled as Phoenix’ character is introduced to one character after the next (and trust me, there are a lot to keep track of). But if you have the patience for this sort of thing, much like “The Master”, it contains a lot of elements that any true fan of film will enjoy. Though being a bit of an endurance test at a lengthy 2 hours and 30 minutes long most, like myself, should be able to look past this and its sometimes muddled script, challenging story, and one too many characters to follow. Because outside of that it’s a truly great detective story riddled with underlying black comedy. Something that seems to owe as much to Roman Polanski’s excellent 1974 film noir movie “Chinatown” as it does the Coen Brothers strangely funny and unique “The Big Lebowski” (1997). For fans of PTA’s previous efforts I think this is something you’ll have a ball with at as it is him at his most uncompromisingly unique but in all the best ways. For everyone else this might be something far too strange and absurdist even for the most well versed indie art house cinema fan. But to people like me, it’s a sublime strange feel and tone that seems to be a faithful adaptation of what otherwise must have been a tough book to translate onto screen. However at the hands of the one Mister Paul Thomas Anderson one thing I’ve learned is that anything is possible.