The Beautiful Dysfunction Of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Characters

PTA's characters are just the right amount of wrong.

Dysfunction’s everywhere you look in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s in the relationships between fathers and sons, between surrogate mothers and daughters; it sours things between mentors and students, it’s deeply ingrained in otherwise-flavorless day jobs. It’s often revealed to be the diseased fuel that powers entire industries. And -- as is usually the case -- much of this dysfunction is ugly and repellant, there to remind us just how broken most of PT Anderson’s characters (and the world) really are. But from time to time, Anderson proves that dysfunction can also be beautiful, compelling, even charming. Such is the case with Anderson’s most iconic characters.

In Boogie Nights, Anderson introduces us to Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a dim-witted high school dropout whose aimless existence has turned his home life into a full-on nightmare. All but rejected by his parents and wringing a tiny paycheck out of a job his go-nowhere job, Eddie is at his wit’s end when he encounters Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a porn producer who’s built himself quite the empire over the years. Jack welcomes Eddie into that empire with open arms, where Eddie -- who rechristens himself “Dirk Diggler” -- quickly takes on Jack as a surrogate father. He even finds a mother of sorts, an older porn actress by the name of Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), and a sister, Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Like any family, this motley crew endures some serious ups and downs over the years, but there’s an undeniable sweetness to their interactions, a tenderness to the way they care for one another, and in the end we see that Jack’s pseudo-family has provided long-term shelter for these critically flawed characters.

Anderson’s Boogie Nights follow-up, Magnolia, is (thematically speaking) a film about abuse, which means that dysfunction exists in virtually every character and encounter Anderson puts onscreen. Unlike his previous film, where the dysfunction became the glue that held Anderson’s broken characters together, the dysfunction between the characters in Magnolia is the chaotic wild-card that sends them pinballing into, around, and away from one another. A horrifically dysfunctional relationship between Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his final role) and Frank “TJ” Mackey (a never-better Tom Cruise) keeps them apart for years, before both find some semblance of closure when forces conspire to deliver Frank to Earl’s bedside just before he passes away; a lonely drug addict named Claudia (Melora Walters, turning in what may be the film’s best performance) is nearly undone by her demons, until a put-upon cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, typically awesome) shows up on her doorstep and decides to accept her in spite of those demons. A full-blown family never quite coalesces between Magnolia’s sprawling cast of characters as it did in Boogie Nights, but in the redemption found by Early, Frank, Claudia and Jim, Anderson suggest that it’s never too late: there is hope for even the most dysfunctional among us.

This theme carried over into Anderson’s subsequent film, Punch-Drunk Love, where we’re introduced to one of Anderson’s most bizarro characters ever: Barry Egan (Adam Sandler, somewhat playing against type). From the moment Barry appears onscreen, it’s apparent that something is deeply wrong with him; he’s a collection of nervous tics and barely-suppressed rage. We eventually learn that Barry’s perpetual awkwardness has likely been caused by being raised amongst seven overbearing, bullying sisters: they needle him constantly (“Remember when we used to call you ‘gay boy’?”), and we can easily imagine how a lifetime of this might result in a grown man who’s seemingly terrified of women, confrontation and adulthood itself. Barry tries his best to insinuate himself into an adult existence, but he never quite overcomes his dysfunctional past: he wears a suit to work, but it’s a childish, electric-blue number (and, apparently, the only suit he owns; he wears it throughout the entire film); he runs a business, but his customers show him zero respect and one gathers that most of his operation is being held together by the efforts of his right-hand man, Lance (Luis Guzman, MVP of the PT Anderson universe). Ironically enough, it’s through the efforts of one of his sisters that Barry encounters Lena (a luminous Emily Watson), who has the patience and kindness to help him overcome the things that have been eating away at him his entire life. Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson’s weirdest movie, but for my money it’s also the sweetest and the most hopeful.

Anderson’s next two films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, have similarly-dysfunctional -- and similarly iconic -- relationships at their core. In both films, a ferociously charismatic alpha-male (Daniel Day Lewis in the former, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the latter) attempts to bend the will of an unhinged beta-male (Paul Dano and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively) to his will. In both films, the charismatic alpha-male ultimately fails in that regard, even while finding the personal success they sought all along: Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview (a performance for the ages if there ever was one) is fabulously wealthy by the end of his life, but is presumably undone (“I’m finished”) when he kills Paul Dano’s weasely little preacher, Eli Sunday, in a fit of rage; Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd eventually spreads “The Cause” (a Scientology-esque self-help cult) across the world, but he never gets the satisfaction of taming Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. Dysfunction afflicts each of these iconic characters, but -- unlike Anderson’s previous films -- their various dysfunctions keep them from ever finding peace.

As of this writing, I’ve not yet seen PT Anderson’s forthcoming Thomas Pynchon adaptation, Inherent Vice, but I gather that Anderson will be adding another charismatically-damaged and iconic character to his filmography in the form of Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello. Cast from a similar mold as Jeff Bridge’s Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, Doc is a perma-stoned private eye desperately trying to sort out a convoluted mystery in 1970’s Los Angeles. There’s no telling what manner of dysfunction, intrigue and shenanigans Doc will encounter in Anderson’s latest opus, but history has taught us to expect the very best: Anderson’s one of our most vital, brilliant filmmakers, and I can’t wait to see what sort of beautiful dysfunction he tosses up onscreen with Inherent Vice.

This was originally published in the January edition of Birth.Movies.Death. See Inherent Vice at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!