On more than one occasion, I’ve made the assertion that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite directors. And I’ve generally been able to back it up in conversation; everyone loves Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, everyone loves Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and everyone loves Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. But one day, listening to a podcast in which Paul F. Tompkins had asserted that the Other Anderson was his favorite director, and then proceeded to confirm that he had seen and actually liked every single movie O.A. had made, it occurred to me that I couldn’t say the same about P.T.A. because I hadn’t actually seen any of his other movies. I still haven’t, but golly, I am trying. So far, P.T.A. is batting 1.000.
It’s hard to say what his strength as a director is. In some moments, it’s the colors he uses. The easiest and perhaps most annoying way of describing his palette is something like the Brannan filter on Instagram. I hate that I just said that but, you know, it provides a 21st century visual. Anyhow. It’s sort of like having a black and white photograph painted over with only the most important colors. He loves a blue, as we saw in The Master, but he’s loved it for awhile. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) sports a beautiful blue suit, a la Pete Campbell on Mad Men, and it really stands out, which is an odd image, considering how much Barry blends into the background otherwise. But before I get to Barry, I just have to mention the gorgeous, trippy stained-glass patterns that appeared in some scene transitions and behind the credits. Jeez. I don’t know if he hired someone to do them, or if he did them himself, and I’m not going to look it up because I honestly don’t care. All I know is that it was stunning.
Okay, so, Barry. Wow. As I know many have said before me, Barry is Adam Sandler’s best work. I doubt he’ll do anything better, what with the recent Tyler Perry-esque turn his career has taken, and I so wish he’d try something as thoughtful as this again, because he really knocked it out of the park. After getting over the initial shock of Sandler not talking in his trademark, irritating baby voice, I noticed how subtle and delicate Barry really is. Here’s a guy who is sweet, bourne of something wholesome, whose loneliness and sadness have soured him. At his lowest point he’s still a good person, if a biting liar, but it’s impossible to dislike him because his worst enemy is himself.
When Lena (Emily Watson, whom I swear is the same person as Emily Mortimer) comes along, it’s simultaneously magical and completely happenstance. Barry’s life would have continued just the same had she not showed up and thrust her car troubles upon him because he coincidentally worked in the building next to her auto shop and it wasn’t open yet but she needed to leave. He might have spiraled further downward, or he might not have. But theirs is a simple, unbound love–not a love affair, as they’re doing nothing wrong–with its own set of trivial complications that could only possibly happen between the two of them. They are normal, believable people who aren’t as important to anyone else as they are to each other, not even their own families, and so you must root for them. It is at once cute and serendipitous, and ever so slightly French (whatever that means!), and yet not twee or pretentious or overly symbolic. P.T.A. should write more love stories, I think.
One final note about the music: I learned from a film buff who, I quote, “wants to have sex with this movie,” that it’s all by Jon Brion. This guy adds a certain undefinable wistfulness (the choice of using songs with light, low-fi piano, for example) as well as unmistakeable wit (I swear I heard actual farts at one point) create a truly unique, specific sonic experience (sorry, that sounds terrible, but it’s true) that fits the film like a fine leather glove. P.T.A. sure knows how to pick people to score his movies.