History should look back at Inherent Vice as the most slept-on film of 2014. We got a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie last year, you guys! Where were all you “hardcore cinephiles” and your disposable incomes? Did you all catch cold, blocking your sinuses from the wafting ammonia of 70mm celluloid? Did it not get nominated for enough Kid’s Choice Awards for you to deem it culturally relevant? Are you happy you spent that money on Birdman instead?
At the end of its domestic run, Inherent Vice has barely crossed the $8 million mark, and that’s less than half of what PTA’s second-lowest grosser, The Master, earned back in 2012. It’s a shame, because unlike The Master, Inherent Vice is a true crowd-pleaser. Yes, the story is convoluted and makes no sense, but who cares? The Big Sleep didn’t make sense either, and Inherent Vice isn’t even a straightforward noir, more like a series of 70’s SNL sketches starring your favorite actors.
Watching Inherent Vice reminded me of another overlooked PTA movie: Punch Drunk Love. That one was a crowd-pleaser, and it didn’t catch on for most people either: too Adam-Sandlery for the PTA crowd and vice versa. This connection got me thinking. One thing led to another, and after covering my walls with old newspaper clippings, consulting some astrological charts, and eating some chakra crystals, I’m proud to present my Grand Unified Paul Thomas Anderson Sandwich Cycle Theory.
Phase One: The BLT
The first films in the sandwich cycle*, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, are the BLTs of the PTA canon. Everyone’s seen them, they’re reliable, they’re perfectly balanced. They’re his biggest hits at the box office—even though they have a lot going on, they’re straightforward enough to get the popular vote. They’re both cultural touchstones of their respective eras: Boogie Nights is the crown jewel of the post-Pulp Fiction 90’s indie boom, and There Will Be Blood could never have been made if the Iraq War’s effect on oil prices weren’t all over the headlines. Each is going to be remembered as an American classic, and rightfully so: they have career-defining performances, distinctive production design, and arresting film style. None of these elements threaten to overtake the others and turn the whole thing into an “art movie.” You can watch these with your film-nerd buddies, but you can also watch them with your families (after the kids are tucked in). Nobody’s going to call you pretentious for hanging a poster of one in your dorm room.
Phase Two: The Double Down
After Phase One, PTA gets cocky. Not that he’s not entitled to. These are the ones where he points to the stands Babe Ruth-style, where he really goes after the white whale of cinematic god status. If Phase One is PTA grabbing the zeitgeist by its haunches, Phase Two is where he cashes his blank checks with impunity. He’s doing what he feels like and not paying attention to anything else. You get the sense watching these films that before walking onset each day of shooting, he shouted “IMMA DO ME” in an Andy Samberg voice. Magnolia will be more fondly remembered than The Master, but neither is remotely trying to appeal to a mainstream audience. Magnolia famously crossed the three-hour mark before every blockbuster started doing the same thing; The Master is about fifteen minutes shorter than There Will Be Blood, but it feels three times as long. It’s not length per se that defines these, more like audience effort required to reach the end. They’re KFC Double Downs: you read about one and you’re like, “whoa, that’s a lot to deal with.” Crammed with good stuff, but exhausting. It’s probably unhealthy to see more than one a year.
Phase Three: The Banh Mi
Ask yourself, what’s a better sandwich than a bánh mì? Bzzt, wrong. The bánh mì is the best sandwich ever invented. It’s healthy, affordable, and delicious. However, you probably don’t eat bánh mì that often. Its objective superiority to everything in the American diet is tempered by one simple fact: it’s too foreign. Like bánh mì, Punch Drunk Love and Inherent Vice don’t fit into American moviegoers’ boxes. It’s almost as if after the Double Downs, PTA decides to let his hair down a bit, relax, just make a fun movie…and winds up with something even more confounding. Ambition is the PTA brand, so when he tries to scale down and do an Adam Sandler romcom or a dumb stoner movie, people are like, “What? Why did you make this? What does it have to offer besides a good time?” If you’re looking for a reason why Adam Sandler keeps making shitpiles, look no further than Punch Drunk Love being the lowest-grossing movie he’s ever headlined. PTA can’t quite bring himself to make regular movies—Punch Drunk Love still looks and sounds like an art movie, and Inherent Vice’s story tricks people into thinking it’s trying to be smart—so these movies exist in a weird gray area, too silly to drum up rave reviews but still a far cry from the mainstream.
I’d wrap up by lamenting how PTA’s best movies are his most underrated, and how Americans never spend money on simple entertainments marketed exclusively to adults. Except that would be obnoxious, and I’m not paying money to see Focus this weekend either. Instead, I’ll leave it at the prediction that if I’m right, PTA’s next movie has to be a BLT. Meaning in the next 3-7 years he’ll come back with something that’s gonna nab him his Oscar, win him piles of dough, and leave us all satisfied. Fingers crossed.
*I’m ignoring Hard Eight because every director has a first film they’d rather we forget about.