Here’s a filmmaker. Movie buffs truly know him. And mainstream audiences might have an inkling of who he is. His name is Paul Thomas Anderson, but he’s got a cute nickname like that friend who used to fart on your head during Friday night college events. Us film geeks refer to him as PTA. He’s the man who put dicks in cinema on the map. He is not to be confused with Paul W.S. Anderson, director of the legendary Mortal Kombat and the smash un-hit Pompeii. W.S. has also done a bunch of Resident Evil movies. PTA thinks all of those flicks are just fine. This article aims to unravel the mystery of why Mr. Anderson is so beloved by critics and film snobs, but mostly fails to connect with a general audience.
Maybe “art” just doesn’t stick in America’s belly. PTA either makes films that are “too good for America,” or he just makes boring clap-trap that nobody wants to see. The opinion on this like the films themselves is very subjective. Take his latest opus, Inherent Vice. This is a film that I have unsuccessfully attempted to watch on my home-based computer system two or three times. I just can’t get into the swing of it, man. The inscrutable dialogue and lingering camera strategy make it tough on the A.D.D.-riddled palette. Mike Bay, this is not. Now, while some may praise the merits of this intricately-woven loosey-goosey detective story, I found myself tuning out early. And America seems to have followed suit. Since I haven’t completed a viewing of this film, I cannot give it a proper review; but suffice to say, what I have seen tells me all that I need to know in regards to audience participation in the film. Quite simple: nobody cares. And this is emblematic of the customer service downslide that has been plaguing Paul since the release of Magnolia. With an $8 million total take domestically as of this writing, Inherent is PTA's least successful film other than his very first outing, the little-seen Hard Eight (aka Sydney).
Even though it wasn’t technically his first motion picture, PTA came out of the gate guns blazing with Boogie Nights in 1997. While it didn’t light up the box office, garnering a respectable $26 million domestically, the film was an instant sensation amongst true film buffs who were able to experience it in the emerging DVD era. This created a white-hot level of anticipation for PTA’s next offering, and he promptly screwed the pooch with a tale called Magnolia. Even Kevin Smith could not be seduced by the story’s charms. While it boasted an epic run time, feverish melodrama, and noble aspirations, it failed to connect with a wide audience, grossing $3 million less domestically than its predecessor. So the anticipation didn’t really pay off monetarily. I only saw the film once years ago but it’s nothing I would revisit.
Next up we have Punch-Drunk Love. The gimmick of this one was casting Adam Sandler in a non-poopy-pants role – In other words, another comedian who wants to be TAKEN SERIOUSLY. While Sandler’s performance was well-calibrated and the heart of the film, the action surrounding it failed to generate much heat or momentum. Audiences don’t exactly line up around the block for a breezy romantic art-house fantasy starring a comedian who cracks no jokes. This led to a humble gross of $17 million domestically. Paul was sinking lower.
Now it’s time for the medium-sized comeback. PTA decided to put some Oscar bait on his fishing rod and casted it out to the cinematic ocean to draw some blood. There Will Be Blood marked Paul’s first time working with a serious, no-bullshit leading man in Daniel Day-Lewis. Critically and Oscar-wise, it paid off majorly, with DDL garnering Best Actor for his efforts. While true mainstream success still eluded this picture, indie audiences lapped it up intently, pushing it to a strong by “art-house standards” box office take of $40 million domestically. It deservedly lost Best Picture to the much more financially-successful No Country for Old Men. While Blood is admirable from a filmmaking craft perspective, I found it tedious and pretentious, another film that I don’t care to revisit, given the choice.
We’re coming to the home stretch of unraveling this guy’s career. Presented to us is a film called The Master. Tackling difficult subject matter – by Hollywood standards – this is another ambitious play by Mr. Anderson. A very vague and subjective film, it confused and confounded audiences on its way to a $16 million domestic haul, putting it almost exactly at the level of Punch-Drunk Love from ten years earlier. I personally had a very strange experience from watching The Master. As I was actually viewing it, I felt it torturous and shapeless. But by the time it was over, reflecting back on it in the hours and days hence, it struck me out of the blue as a very interesting discussion piece. So like Michael Bay, I went from “Pain” to “Gain.” While I wouldn’t say that I love or even like the film, it did do a number on my brain. There was some scrambling involved, much like the Scientology religion which the film purports to be about.
And this circles us back around to the aforementioned Inherent Vice. This film especially marks a crossroads for PTA’s career. He can continue making exactly whatever the hell he wants and suffering the box office penalties as a result. One of the things about an artist is that their taste does not always line up with the tastes of the mass public. When it comes to Anderson’s work, this is clearly the case. He has made public statements about liking movies such as Terminator 2, Edge of Tomorrow, and Marvel superhero films, but his own output is diametrically opposed to this kind of fare. To get back on track and become a hit with general audiences and film dorks alike, he must inject that edginess and energy into his compositions that’s been lacking since Boogie Nights.
Obviously this is just my opinion and Paul is going to do whatever the hell he wants regardless of what other people think. We all wanted the next Scorsese, not the next James Toback. Despite any indie anti-Hollywood posturing, films are entertainment meant to be consumed by large numbers of people. You’ve got to put the pedal to the metal and spread the mustard think and wide. In other words, cover the entire hotdog and don’t just focus on the relish or the jalapenos. We know that Mr. Anderson has an enormous amount of talent, and uses his brain to, you know, think about stuff. He needs to move the ball forward and give audiences what they want, not just what he himself wants.