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).
Anderson seemed to hedge his bets by casting one of the world's biggest movie stars, Tom Cruise, in his 1999 follow-up Magnolia, and though he surrounded Cruise with Boogie Nights alums and turned in a final cut that topped three hours, there was still reason to believe that Magnolia's Oscar-friendly themes of redemption and familial reconciliation would connect with audiences. Not so much. It fared worse at the box office than Boogie Nights, its domestic grosses only reaching $22 million.
And that's why fans were a little concerned when word got out that his next project was an Adam Sandler vehicle. "I just cry with laughter in his movies," he told The Guardian, while promoting Magnolia's UK release. In the same interview, he insisted that his next film would run a mere 90 minutes. Punch-Drunk Love did, in fact, star Sandler, and it clocks in at a trim 95, but that's about all about the project that came out as expected. Anderson plugged Sandler into a bizarre plot about an abandoned harmonium, phone sex extortion, and a pudding-enabled treasure of frequent flyer miles, and pitched it with a comedic tone so dark as to test the boundaries of the genre.
Anderson didn't change Sandler's onscreen persona so much as subvert it. He plucked the comic's go-to character, the awkward man-child with anger issues, out of his rarefied Happy Madison atmosphere and plopped him down in the real world, where his social snafus and fits of rage caused everyone else to back away, slowly. Audiences did too: Punch-Drunk Love did even less business than Magnolia, a meager $17 million, Sandler's lowest-grossing star vehicle to date. It wasn't hard to guess why. Its presumptive art-house audience stayed away because it was an Adam Sandler movie, while Sandler's fans steered clear once word got out that it wasn't an Adam Sandler movie.
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But what's interesting about Punch-Drunk Love, in retrospect, is that it seems now like Anderson's warning shot: He wasn't going to accommodate his audience, or even give them much of a second thought. The look-Ma-no-hands set pieces and giggling big-dick humor of Boogie Nights, the grand gestures and operatic emotions of Magnolia—these were things of the past. Just as every Boogie Nights review invoked Scorsese and Tarantino, every Magnolia review called up Robert Altman, a clear influence on that film's kaleidoscopic storytelling style and big, bustling ensemble storytelling. Anderson always acknowledged his debt to Altman, though strangely, by the time he worked with his hero (serving as a stand-by director for the ailing Altman during production of his final film, A Prairie Home Companion), he had ceased echoing him. His two post-Altman films (There Will Be Blood and The Master) are, contrarily enough, his most tightly controlled. In the years since his key influence's passing, his style has less approximated Altman's than Kubrick's—less loose and busy, more idiosyncratic and uncompromising.
When I first saw There Will Be Blood, I wasn't sure how to deal with it. I kept waiting for Anderson to deliver the kind of frisky, satisfying, cathartic kick that his previous works had led me to expect (even Punch-Drunk gives us the thrill of Barry picking up a crowbar and facing down those who would do harm to his new, twisted love). It took a good four or five viewings to finally get the hang of what Anderson was up to: a cold and unforgiving stare into the bubbling black soul of the American capitalist. He was not going to meet us halfway anymore. The Master is no more conventional, and no less cockeyed. Its peculiarities are par for the course, and by now it's no surprise that the giddily participatory camera of Boogie Nights has been replaced by one that is almost anthropological; even the wildest beats are viewed with a muted remove. Though The Master is even more stand-offish, the (dare I say it?) maturity of There Will Be Blood rendered it easier to adjust to the new film and engage with it on its own terms. Each of Anderson's works prepares us for the next, and each is unimaginable without its predecessor
Tarantino has a new picture out this fall as well, and it looks like fun. But it also looks, unquestionably, like the latest film from the director of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. His style is set and probably won't change much. Anderson's style, on the other hand, is still evolving, and will probably continue to do so as long as he remains patently uninterested in bending to expectations. It's next to impossible to imagine any of the up-and-comers at this year's Toronto Film Festival being pegged as "the next Paul Thomas Anderson"—and that may very well be what make his work so very fascinating.