Starring: Alana Hain, Cooper Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Maya Rudolph, Christine Ebersole, and John Michael Higgins.
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Where I Watched It: Apple VOD
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
The Plot: Deeply entrenched in early 70’s culture, featuring everything from waterbeds, corded phones, gas shortages, and commentary on Vietnam, this story follows the unlikely pairing of Alana (Hain), a 25 year old Jewish girl struggling to find her place in Southern California, and Gary (Hoffman) a 15 year old aspiring actor following in his fathers footsteps. This unlikely coupling is the core of the film, which just follows along much like life does. As it happens.
What Works: Paul Thomas Anderson is very much a director with a voice, a purpose, and a style. Even when I don’t like his films, I can still respect the hell out of multiple elements. Admittedly, my top two PTA films are Boogie Nights and Phantom Thread, not your usual suspects, so this dialogue heavy, somewhat comedic teenage quasi-love story felt the most accessible to me conceptually.
He writes some really great dialogue, which is supported by a strong cast. Hain is definitely a breakthrough here, with a long career in front of her, but I’m a little sad that she’s getting all the attention, when Cooper Hoffman in his actual first film role is so damn good. Of course, this is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, so he’s got it in the genes. And it shows. He feels like he’s been in 20 films already, but this is just his first.
And yes, while his presence in the film is very limited, Bradley Cooper is astounding with how little screen time he actually has. No wonder he was getting awards buzz. While other major actors pop up in smaller roles, none make as much of an impact as he does, and the film is carried really only by the main two leads.
I’m almost done with all English language nominees now, as this was my 9th Best Picture nominee. When Drive My Car has English audio description, I’ll review it. For now, I’m glad to check this off my list.
What Doesn’t Work: As much as I loved the main two characters, and Cooper’s performance, as well as the written dialogue, this film felt very hit or miss for me in terms of this up and down feeling I had throughout. It seems to wander aimlessly, much like its female lead character, and sometimes my interest waited. Sometimes it didn’t. It did keep me from feeling fully connected and invested in these characters as I questioned the runtime, and whether or not it was necessary. I think a shorter tighter cut would have added more purpose, but what do I know. This is a Best Picture nominee.
It’s not that it’s a bad film, I just only sometimes cared what was happening.
The Blind Perspective: I appreciated that the credits were more audio described than we usually get. That was fun. But, in all, I felt like the audio description was kind of just the bare minimum. Almost like, they would drop just enough knowledge before a scene for you to get the general gist, but then once it was rolling more often than not, it was hands off. Having just sat through the wonderfully descriptive Deep Water, I sat through a film knowing it was PT Anderson, who is very visual, feeling very left out.
And that’s my perspective as a critic who could see at one time, and now cannot. I know he is a very intentional director in his sets and imagery, and often we don’t get background descriptions, and things occur with little to non mention of them. For example, there was a bit of a kerfuffle at one point in the first act of the film, but there was no description for it. We just got a before and after. Nothing during.
I think you can still follow the film, as this is the bare essential, but coming at this as someone who was able to actually see Anderson’s last film, Phantom Thread, and I still have those images in my head, he’s far more intentional with what is on screen than this description gives him credit for. I know it’s hard to pick up a directors style, but for directors like Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, and a few others whose specific visual components are often a large part of why they have such critical renown, you should try and bring that more into the description.
Final Thoughts: Not my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, as I think it wanders a bit too much for my own personal taste. But it does have a few great scenes, two terrific lead performances from relatively unknown to first time actors, as well as a stunning brief Bradley Cooper performance. I wouldn’t have nominated it for Best Picture, but despite how I feel about the runtime, the dialogue here is so perfect, I still think this is a great screenplay. And, please give Cooper Hoffman some love. I think his dad would be so proud of this performance. He’s got a very bright future ahead of him.
Final Grade: B