The director's style has changed dramatically since Boogie Nights, and the turning point may have been Punch-Drunk Love.
"I have been to the 22nd annual Toronto International Film Festival," trumpeted Entertainment Weekly in September 1997, "and I have seen the new Quentin Tarantino. His name is Paul Thomas Anderson, and Boogie Nights... is, in every sense, the most sensational act of moviemaking so far this year." That was 15 years ago to the month. An unaware viewer of Anderson's new film, The Master (out now in New York and Los Angeles), would be hard-pressed to identify it as the same filmmaker's work. This is not to say that The Master and Boogie Nights aren't both great films—they are, though in very different (almost contradictory) ways. But there may be no A-list filmmaker today who has negotiated a more complete stylistic evolution than Anderson. As that evolution continues with the new film, it seems clearer and clearer that his moment of truth came at the most unlikely juncture: when he was making an Adam Sandler comedy.
Anderson's breakthrough picture (he saw the release of his first film, a muted, low-key character drama alternately known as Sidney and Hard Eight, bungled by a novice distributor), Boogie Nights was a big, flashy, dazzling entertainment in the Scorsese-circa-Goodfellas mold. Like that film, its third act took a hard right into bummer territory, but even when the subject matter grew grim, the filmmaker's relentless energy and scrappy invention was infectious. In spite of its 152-minute running time and downbeat twists, it was basically a crowd-pleaser—fast and funny and intoxicating, predicted by most of its rave reviews to follow Pulp Fiction's lead and cross over from art house to mainstream hit. It didn't. The film topped out at $26 million domestic (nothing to sneeze at, but a long way from Fiction's $107 million).