Paul Thomas Anderson: The West Coast’s Scorsese

Inherent Vice, a subtly morose love letter written in pot smoke, is further validation that Paul Thomas Anderson has become the West Coast’s answer to Martin Scorsese.

12.13.14 11:50 AM ET

Over the course of the past two decades, Paul Thomas Anderson has carved out a distinctive and distinguished directorial career marked by aesthetic artistry and intricate, intimate stories about lost souls and intertwined subcultures. Those qualities are again found in his latest, Inherent Vice, a sprawling adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel about a 1970 SoCal stoner detective named Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix) ensnared in a complex case involving his missing girlfriend Shasta Fy Hepworth (stunning newcomer Katherine Waterston). Alternately wry, ridiculous, and subtly morose, it’s heady re-confirmation of Anderson’s greatness. Moreover, it’s further validation that Anderson has become exactly what his early critics disparaged him as: the West Coast’s answer to Martin Scorsese.

First, a little history. Anderson made his feature debut in 1996 with Hard Eight, a noir-ish saga (adapted from his 1993 short film Cigarettes & Coffee) about a down-and-out nobody (John C. Reilly) who’s befriended in Reno, Nevada by peerlessly cool old-school gangster Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), and who eventually falls in love with a casino waitress and part-time hooker (Gwyneth Paltrow). A study of three lonely characters searching for salvation through surrogate parent-child bonds, Hard Eight is something like the spare, small-scale, rundown flip-side to Martin Scorsese’s showy, expansive Casino. Though its despondent ambiance is reserved, it’s hard not to see Scorsese’s influence in Anderson’s sudden pans, intense close-ups and drawn-out tracking shots, none greater than a protracted sequence in which his camera trails Hall around the gambling-house floor in what comes off as a loving homage to Goodfellas’ legendary Steadicam shot.

If Hard Eight suggested Scorsese, Anderson’s breakout sophomore effort, 1997’s Boogie Nights, firmly cemented their creative association. A formidable opus about the 1970s heyday of the adult-film industry, it’s a work whose over-populated plot recalls Anderson’s other muse—the late, great Robert Altman—but whose style (and rise-then-fall narrative trajectory) is vintage Scorsese. Boogie Nights is teeming with rat-a-tat-tat editing modeled after the cutting of long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, propulsive use of era-specific pop songs, and as much wild, careening Goodfellas-style cinematographic virtuosity—all whip pans, sudden zooms, and long tracking shots from behind characters navigating twisty, turbulent spaces—as a 155-minute film can handle. Boogie Nights feels like a film by a wunderkind hopped up on Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and After Hours, except that instead of a cold, gritty, working-class Manhattan vibe, Anderson infuses his film with a polar-opposite SoCal mood of sun, glitz, glamour, and hedonistic excess.

That atmosphere continued to flourish in 1999’s Magnolia, a film whose multi-character melodrama is most often cited as verification of the director’s kinship with Robert Altman. While Altman’s Nashville and Short Cuts can be clearly felt in Magnolia, its evocation of the San Fernando Valley is so personal, so obviously cut from Anderson’s own experiences growing up as a kid in the region, that it resonates as the very type of milieu-based drama with which Scorsese initially made his name. While Anderson here operates in a more operatic—if not outright florid, heart-on-his-sleeve—fashion than Scorsese’s earlier works, there’s a bone-deep understanding of time and place in Magnolia that, like in Mean Streets, seems ripped, warts and all, from its creator’s past, and heart. It’s personal filmmaking not only about people, and communities, but also about the look, smell, and sounds of a very specific environment, and how it shapes those who inhabit it.

You can similarly feel the lonely emptiness, as well as the radiant glow, of California in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, which saw Anderson steer away from his more ambitious aspirations for a quiet love story between two quirky souls. In the film’s loose, jazzy aesthetics (especially Jon Brion’s score), Anderson attempts to break free from his comfort zone, not unlike Scorsese did with 1977’s Robert De Niro-Liza Minnelli musical New York, New York. Furthermore, in its use of a comedian (Adam Sandler) in a dramatic role that plays off the star’s funnyman identity, Punch-Drunk Love takes a cue from Scorsese’s 1983 black-comedy gem The King of Comedy, in which Jerry Lewis riffs on his own iconic persona as a not-that-nice TV talk show host caught in stalker-esque circumstances with Robert De Niro’s fan.

Anderson’s next two films took a sharp detour into darker territory, with 2007’s There Will Be Blood mining Southern California’s early-20th-century oil boom for apocalyptic tragedy, and 2012’s The Master plumbing Scientology’s origins for twisted psycho-drama. With regards to the former, Anderson’s historical epic concerns the birth of modern California, with Daniel-Day Lewis as the larger-than-life embodiment of the determination, ruthlessness, and madness that would soon come to define the land in which he settled—and as such, it’s a veritable companion piece to Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. And while the latter has no direct Scorsese parallel, its early portrait of San Francisco has a haunting wooziness that captures the state’s New Age-inspired spirit—all post-WWII psychosis and shady hucksterism—at the middle of the century. It’s a film that oozes Cali cool, charisma, and craziness in equal measure.

So too does Inherent Vice, which is something like a love letter written in pot smoke to the Gold Coast. Although Thomas Pynchon’s novels are often described as “unfilmable,” Anderson in this case turns out to be the ideal translator of the reclusive author’s prose, in part because, like Pynchon, he’s so attuned to a particular strain of ‘70s-era SoCal attitude—laid back, inebriated by the gorgeous weather, and equally striking women (and, you know, the drugs), captivated by the promise of big business riches and movie industry stardom, and yet beset by anxiety and fear that, beneath the brilliant surface, something’s rotten in the state of California too.

Throughout Inherent Vice’s rambling private-eye adventure, Anderson conveys a comedic, chaotic sense of his milieu that has the precision of Scorsese’s finest works, albeit in a register that’s on the other end of the tonal spectrum. What with its bumbling criminals, crooked cops, and assortment of amusing and ominous ne’er do wells, it reveals Anderson to be the preeminent surveyor of his birthplace environment (and perennial stomping ground)—and, consequently, the SoCal yin to Scorsese’s NYC yang.