A movie that needed, that cried out, to be made: a hefty slice of heretofore unsampled cultural history, carved out of the San Fernando Valley, cradle of the porn-film industry. The precise snippet of the timeline -- sufficiently lengthy to qualify as "epic," especially at a two-and-a-half-hour running time -- could hardly have been more strategically selected. It spans from the salad days of the late Seventies, after these glorified stag films had gained a foothold in public places in the light of day, to the early Eighties, when the arrival of video drove them back underground and into the privacy of the home. At its best, the movie encroaches on the territory Tim Burton staked out in Ed Wood, a cheerful spectacle of people doing the best they can, however abysmal their level of ability. But writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who appears to regard himself as doing well to be nonjudgmental, cannot match Burton's affection for his people and cannot mask his own condescension. To be sure, we would not want Anderson to give us exactly the same thing we got from Burton. We want something new, something else. We get something less. We are expected, evidently, to congratulate Anderson on his nonjudgmentalism toward people he views as -- people he, after all, created as -- uniformly simple-minded, guileless, unaware, unreflecting, inarticulate, materialistic, acquisitive, myopic, childish, defenseless. How very big of him. How very superior. Neutrality is always a more interesting, a more difficult, a more artful, position to maintain in the face of more interesting people. Anderson's version of it is at bottom a self-imposed handicap that gets in the way equally of the potential parody and the potential poignance. The movie is dull-edged all around. A certain triteness of imagination -- an inclination to pull out guns and start blasting -- is a handicap, too. But an even bigger handicap than those is the hybridized visual style that compels us to think of other filmmakers when we ought to be thinking about Anderson: primarily of Scorsese, secondarily of Schrader; of the baroque operatic floridness of the one, and the puritanical glacial austerity of the other. They do not go together, those two, except as figureheads of scholastic cinema. And they do not both go -- Scorsese, at any rate, does not go -- with an attitude of neutrality. Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy. (1997) — Duncan Shepherd
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