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“You Were Never Really Here” Is a Magnificent Nervous Breakdown of a Movie

I first saw Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was the final title to screen in competition because the filmmakers were still working on it. The Cannes cut made it in just under the wire in rough, unfinished form, with a running time that, hilariously, kept changing depending on who you asked. The festival had felt more lackluster than usual despite some standout titles — but then Ramsay came in at the last minute with her cinematic hand grenade and shocked many of us into attention, and awe.

That moment — the shock, the uncertainty, as well as the triumph — felt particularly sweet because Ramsay herself had been missing from screens for a few years, after a rather public and messy falling-out with the producers of the western Jane Got a Gun, which she had originally been slated to direct. (Gavin O’Connor eventually helmed the film.) But it also seemed curiously appropriate, since Lynne Ramsay makes movies about people on the edge, people up against the wall, people trying — and sometimes failing — to claw their way back out of existential holes. Her films reveal that she understands something elemental about brokenness, and that she can convey it particularly well through her mastery of form — in her work, composition, performance, and rhythm transform simple character interactions into discomfiting shards of cinematic poetry. (Her closest forebear in that sense is Sam Peckinpah, who pretty much redefined action cinema by turning violence into stylized, neurotic fever dreams.)

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Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel, You Were Never Really Here follows the disjointed, tormented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a former soldier and law enforcement official who now works as a kind of hammer-wielding vigilante for hire, finding missing people (usually, it seems, kids). He’s also suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress — he’s hounded at every turn by visions of the people he couldn’t save along the way. We see flashes of his childhood with an abusive father and feel his impotence at not being able to help his mother. We glimpse footage of a girl killed in Iraq and a shipping container full of dead migrants, and we understand that somewhere along the way, Joe wasn’t there for them as well. At Cannes, I wrote: “As depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.… Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?”

But there’s more to it than that. Joe himself is one of the left-behind. He’s self-destructive, in ways both alarming and playful. He might goof around with a knife while lying down, letting the blade hover a few inches above his face. He does a pretty funny imitation of Norman Bates in Psycho with his elderly, invalid mother. (I asked Phoenix about this bit when I interviewed him recently; apparently it was improvised, so we should probably give some credit to the actors here, too.) Joe will also wrap a plastic bag around his head and bring himself to the edge of asphyxiation, something we see him in flashbacks doing as a kid. He longs for oblivion. At times, we might wonder if he might have already achieved it. Could we be watching a ghost?

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That is because in You Were Never Really Here, Joe has a remarkable ability to disappear. Ramsay shoots the film’s action often by avoiding it altogether — showing Joe just rounding a corner, or leaving a room, a wake of carnage behind him. That’s a fascinating state of mind to put the viewer in: The story is told from Joe’s perspective, and yet all too often we don’t actually see Joe himself, simply the trail of destruction he’s left behind — bloodied heads and slit throats and mangled people and broken objects — so that he seems to become the sum total of the havoc he’s wreaked, both to others and to himself. Onscreen, our hero is a shadow, literally and spiritually. And by skirting the edge of oblivion, he has somehow turned his self-loathing and self-negation, all his self-destructive impulses, into a kind of secret power. As much as he needs to break free of his demons, his demons are also partly the reason why he’s able to do what he does. Ramsay has taken that terrifying paradox — one that many artists can probably relate to — and turned it into a transcendent, at times almost dangerous film.

You Were Never Really Here
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Amazon Studios
Opens April 6, Angelika Film Center, AMC Loews Lincoln Square 15

 

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‘Movies Are Strange, Man’: Joaquin Phoenix Talks About Not Knowing What’s Next

I don’t know. Those are the three words that Joaquin Phoenix probably says the most during our interview. He may be one of the greatest actors of his generation — possibly, the greatest — but even he seems not quite capable of articulating just how it is he does what he does. That somehow feels right. We’re talking about Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, for which Phoenix won the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a marvelous performance, but he speaks very little dialogue, and for much of the film we see him only in brief glimpses. During our chat, as the actor fumbles over his words — abandoning analogies halfway through, professing ignorance of his own talents, wondering if anything he’s done works onscreen — he reveals something of his art. Because so much of what Joaquin Phoenix does is about not knowing, both for us as viewers and for him as an actor. In his best performances, he gives off a sense of total absorption and aliveness. Everything seems possible and nothing feels predictable. No other working actor today seems more intuitive, more uncategorizable.

Don’t tell him that, however: Phoenix doesn’t watch his own movies. When I tell him how much I admired him in this film, he deadpans, “Maybe you have terrible taste.” Then when I respond that I’m a fan of his performances in general, he responds, “It looks like you do.” He says it cheerfully, but it’s also hard not to suspect that there’s some doubt in the back of his mind that he uses to rid himself of anything resembling self-consciousness or preciousness. That’s a perfect state of mind for You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s devastating and gripping alt-vigilante drama, in which Phoenix plays a hammer-wielding veteran who is paid to save kidnapped children and who brings all his rage and regret and self-loathing and desire for oblivion to the job. The actor is so convincing in the role that at first I was somewhat scared to talk to him. But the result was a fascinatingly open-ended discussion about acting, Ramsay’s brilliant film, as well as his turn as Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene.

I’ve always found there to be something distinct about Lynne Ramsay’s characters — they’re very submerged and self-negating. You’ve worked with a lot of different directors. Was there anything about her approach that felt different to you?

Every director is different. I’ve never once felt like there’s one standard. But what is unique about Lynne…I don’t know how she worked on other films, or how she worked with other actors, but on this movie, something that we were really cognizant of was trying to fight the clichés of the genre. We didn’t really have a set way of doing things. I imagine there’s like a wildly different performance in there, in other takes, you know. Because each take was different. That was kind of a goal — to do things that might seem out of character or uncomfortable, and play with things, and improvise. We looked for a way of approaching each scene that just wasn’t traditional, wasn’t what you’d expect. If anything in the script felt like it was something that we had seen before, we’d try to change it.

Even though you’re the lead and the whole movie’s pretty much from your character’s perspective, we rarely see your face. Sometimes, we don’t even see you. There’s so much of the film where we’re watching a room that your character has just left. I’m sure some of that happens in editing, but was that always the idea behind the performance?

Yeah, a lot of that was in the script. Certainly Lynne set the tone for that from the very opening scene, creating this kind of mystery around this character — where you’re not really knowing exactly where you stand with him and who he is and what he represents. That was pretty evident in the screenplay, but I’m sure there’s stuff that she does in editing to magnify that or to lessen it.

But for you, as the guy who has to give that performance, what kinds of challenges does that present? When you know that your face is not actually going to be on screen much, or that you’re not going to have as much recourse to dialogue? Do you have to work on the character’s physicality, say, or his posture, or how you walk?

I think it’s a mistake sometimes, as an actor, to think about a movie from the filmmaker’s perspective. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, and it’s one of the struggles that you have as an actor. So, I don’t ask what size lens is there and how much of my body are you seeing. I just have to inhabit the space the way I feel is right. And how the filmmaker captures that or uses it is up to them. It was important to never feel certain of how I was going to behave. The crew was amazing — particularly the camera and sound department, you know, who have to basically follow you around and capture what it is you’re doing — but there really was this feeling that the moment you locked something in, it just started to die. So it felt like things would always have to change and you’d act differently. It was really important for the film and the energy of the character to work that way.

It’s also a pretty violent movie, but so much of what we see is the aftermath of the violence. There’s one fight near the end where we see the whole thing, but that’s about it. For the other scenes of violence, did you guys actually shoot a lot of that stuff and then cut around it in the finished film?

I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not sure what’s in there, but it was intended that you didn’t see a lot of it. But there are probably other things that we shot and didn’t use. Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her. She’s like this brilliant eleventh-hour kind of person. And it’s really astonishing because the story shifted throughout production. There were a couple times where I thought, “Fuck, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re totally fucked.” And she just came up with something at the last minute, you know, and it was really, really impressive. Like, the brothel sequence was originally conceived as something different, and then she got to location.… But that’s what happens; you imagine something in your head and then you have to react to the location. That’s part of what filmmaking is, right? It’s the imagination, and then it’s the reality of what you’re working with. She was great at just reacting to the environment and coming up with something that felt unique.

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The Psycho references, when you’re playfully doing the “eee eee eee” sound and air-stabbing your mom — were those always there, or were those improvised?

Does it happen upstairs in the bathroom?

It happens twice early on in the finished film — once when she’s actually watching Psycho on TV, where you do it playfully. And then up in the bathroom, when she’s yelling at you from the other side of the door, and then you do it again — and it’s slightly more sinister the second time.

We shot all of that stuff with the mom over, like, two or three days in the same house. We played around with different versions of me coming home — what that could be like. And it was three takes in or something when Judith [Roberts, who plays the mother] said that she was watching Psycho; it wasn’t written in the script. She just said that, and so I did the Psycho voice. But I didn’t know if that was the take that was going to be used, so then upstairs when we shot that other scene, it just came up again. And I didn’t know if we would use that version or not. You know, there’s probably like four or five different versions of those scenes, each different.

Those two little moments early on in the film really let us know that we’re watching something quite different from the average revenge drama. They’re funny, of course, but they’re also revealing about the mother-son relationship.

Yeah. Initially in the story there was an almost idyllic dynamic to their relationship, where I was this loving son.… But it seemed like as we got into it, the reality is that when you’re taking care of somebody like that, who has a lot of needs and is struggling, inevitably you’re going to feel frustration. We wanted to find ways to show that.

When you’ve got a character like this who is so wounded, with such a complicated and tragic backstory, to what extent do you have to connect to those kinds of feelings to feel like you’re doing justice to the part?

I don’t know. It’s a good question, it’s a fair question. Movies are strange, man. Sometimes, you hear the writer talk about it, and you read about some of this stuff. For example, we spoke to someone who actually does [hostage] extractions. He goes in with a team. Some of the stories that he told were impossible not to be affected by. But to be honest, sometimes you’re fuckin’ eatin’ Fritos, and you shoot a scene. [Laughs] And you want to take credit for stuff as an actor, but the truth is that it’s really the filmmaking, ultimately. Probably some of the greatest moments in movies the actor was just thinking what was for lunch. So, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are times where you feel affected by things, and it’s emotional. But there’s other times when you go, “This scene is shit, and this is not fuckin’ working.” Then somebody tells you a year later, “I really love that scene. It felt powerful.” And you’re like, “Oh, really?” It’s probably different on every movie. And I think you learn something from every movie — even if the lesson is “Well, let’s not do that again.”

There were parts of this film that were really challenging. Part of it is that we put in a lot of time, a lot of work in pre-production, and that’s about going all day long, into the night, going through and talking. Also, Jim Wilson, who’s the producer, was a really big part of that process. There were a lot of changes to the script, and when you spend your time thinking about one subject matter, it starts seeping into you. Inevitably you’re affected by it. But there are times where maybe it’s just that you’re emotionally available, and so you can go in and shoot a scene and be brought right into it. But, you know, there were times in the fuckin’ brothel where the hammer would bend, and I’d be carrying it in my hand and everybody would be laughing. And I’d go, “Oh, what the fuck’s going on?” You know what I mean? I hope it ends up being a tense sequence, but over the one or two days that we shot it, there were moments that were really tense, and there were moments where we were going, “This is a stupid line. How the fuck are we gonna say this? What is this?”

So, how do you get through that? You’ve talked about trying to avoid being self-conscious. How do you pull that off? Because you seem to do it pretty well.

[Long pause]

And I realize that probably makes you self-conscious too, me just saying that…

I don’t know. There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene. The important thing with this movie was — and I acknowledge I probably do this a lot — to feel comfortable enough to make a lot of mistakes. To be able to say there’s not one right way for him to behave. Again, it seemed like the key was not knowing what his reaction was going to be. I’m sure that sometimes we used just a really straight version of a given scene, but we filmed so many different versions. You just dive head on into that feeling. But sometimes, when you’re making a movie, yeah, your nerves wear off and you grow accustomed to it, or you get tired, or whatever. Maybe it’s a million things over the course of the six weeks. So you just go, “OK, well, this is fuckin’ shit,” and you go outside and you sit and you talk about it, and you try to connect again to what is meaningful about this moment — to try and uncover something that you can latch onto. I guess. I don’t fuckin’ know, man.

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In You Were Never Really Here, there’s a random shot, almost part of a montage, where you’re reading a book and you tear out a page as you’re reading it. Do you remember the motivation behind tearing that page, or even what book it was? It’s such a mysterious little moment.

I don’t remember the book. It was just sitting there. That was another day in which we were shooting stuff in the house, and we had all these different things that we talked about as possibilities. I don’t remember why that came up. Honestly, it was probably nothing. There probably wasn’t like a great idea behind it. Don’t know that it symbolizes anything. I think it was just in that moment, it happened.… We shot a bunch of stuff. We shot a thing with the knife [Phoenix’s character plays with a knife, balancing it in front of his face] and we decided to use that, and use this book. But I honestly don’t remember what occurred to me in that moment. Maybe it’s something that I read about somewhere, or something I did once. I don’t remember. I have no idea why I did that.

It’s a great little moment. It’s probably better that you don’t remember why you did it.

It is. I mean, those are the things that I’m most interested in and want to be open to. I’ve become less interested in mapping things out, as an actor, and making decisions. Or maybe I’m just not good at doing that. Maybe, like, once I’ve made the decision, in that moment, it becomes boring. It just feels dead to me if you say, “This is what we’re doing.” And so, it’s just trying to be open to inspiration and what happens in the moment — feeling comfortable enough to make those decisions.

I don’t know if it’s in there, but do I sing a song in the movie, to the mirror? At the Russian bathhouse. It was just another thing that we’d talked about. A song that my grandfather used to sing to me. We were just trying things in that moment, and I think we were always trying to figure out where the song might go. I don’t know whether it came from Jim or Lynne or both, but they said, “Maybe try it here.” Sometimes, you have something and you don’t know precisely where it goes or if it will work, but you just try to create the space to try those things.

It’s revealing hearing you talk about this. My job is to write about movies, and often I have to discuss why the filmmakers made certain decisions. But hearing you talk, it’s clear that so many of those decisions are intuitive. You don’t necessarily sit down and reason them out.

Yeah, I’ve had both experiences, and certainly, my preference is the more intuitive — because I do think that if you’ve done your work and you feel familiar with the character in the world, that’s…I don’t know, any analogy sounds stupid. It’s like you have all your ingredients, right, and so you know your basics, of what you’re going to put together. But in the moment, you try a few different.… Oh, man, I don’t want to say herbs or fuckin’ spices! That’s so terrible; I don’t want to use that analogy! But you understand what I’m saying. And that is a joy. When I was younger, I thought the whole key to good acting was figuring it out, and locking something in and nailing it. And I just find that repulsive now. It was really something that we went after on this — just trying to be available and open to what the scene might tell you. I like that way of working.

I haven’t seen Mary Magdalene yet; I don’t even know when it will come out in the U.S. But how exactly does one prepare to play Jesus?

Well, there is a lot of information to consume, and a lot of it seems to contradict each other. So you just start reading all sorts of shit, and you go, “OK, well, I like this, and I like that.…” For me, it was important trying to find true contemporary figures that I thought possessed qualities that I was interested in. We always think about the spirit and mythical side of Jesus, but I was trying to find the humanity. That’s what makes the crucifixion such a sacrifice, because if he was just spirit-body then it’s like, “Great, I’m goin’ back.” Oftentimes, for me, research is great. Like, it’s great to take in a lot of information; it will give you ideas, and you’ll try to focus on, you know, what your character fuckin’ ate daily or whatever bullshit it is, right? But oftentimes it’s not until I start experiencing something, at least for me, that I start feeling close to it. I don’t know what the process is, but sometimes I just have to start having the experience. There was this healing scene we did, and it wasn’t until Garth [Davis, the director] and I started talking about it when we were on set, and I was in wardrobe, and I was touching the sand, did I start thinking about it differently — sort of feeling it instead of having this idea that in some ways was…I don’t know, I don’t want to say polluted, but in some ways polluted by the research that I did. I had a particular idea, and then when I got there it started changing. And I’m sure there’s still pieces of that work that are in there, but then it becomes something else — and to me, that’s the ideal place to get to.

 

 

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The Best Film At Cannes Almost Didn’t Make It There On Time

One of my favorite things in the Village Voice archive is Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris’s coverage from the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, wherein they recount the breathless, will-he-make-it anticipation for the arrival of Francis Ford Coppola’s decade-in-the-works Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. That year’s other fest titles, as Haskell notes, were met with a combination of disappointment and praise, adding to a general, gathering sense of malaise, as everyone waited for “the Ayatollah Coppola” to swoop in and save the proceedings.

As it happens, Apocalypse Now did win the Palme d’Or, but that allegedly disappointing year also had (deep breath) Days of Heaven, The Tin Drum, The China Syndrome, My Brilliant Career, The Brontë Sisters, and, playing out of competition, Manhattan and Christ Stopped at Eboli! There were also three Fassbinder titles that year, including The Marriage of Maria Braun and In a Year of 13 Moons. So, you know, hindsight and all that. But 1979 will forever go into the books as “The Apocalypse Now Cannes.”

But that sort of thing happens here: An adored filmmaker, we’re told, is desperately rushing his magnum opus to the finish line, as the whole place buzzes with anticipation and trepidation — for both masterworks and catastrophes have a tendency to arrive messily and bloodily, trailing unfinished credits and temporary sound mixes. In 2004, Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 showed up wet from the lab, with the final reels rushed to the projection booth as the first were already unspooling. (It won no awards, and the Waiting for Wong through-line was ultimately upstaged by the spectacle of Quentin Tarantino’s jury handing Michael Moore the Palme for Fahrenheit 9/11. Hey, remember Fahrenheit 9/11?)

Which brings us to 2017, and Lynne Ramsay. We’d already heard, even before it all started, that Thierry Frémaux’s programming committee had viewed Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here in incomplete form but had still included it in competition because they saw “the potential of an artist, a poet, and an author.” All fest long, there were rumors that Jonny Greenwood was still finishing his score, that the film was due to arrive right before the premiere. Would the screening even happen? Would we all show up at the Salle Debussy and be confronted with a tie-askew Frémaux tearfully streaming a trailer and reading an apology letter? Would Last-Minute Lynne make it in time?

She absolutely did. You Were Never Really Here not only turned out to be the best film in the official competition, this 88-minute nervous breakdown of a movie provided just the jolt this Cannes needed. Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel (loosely, I’m gonna guess), it follows the agitated, fragmented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a kind of vigilante for hire who finds missing people. The plot ostensibly concerns his search for the daughter of a local politician who’s involved in a child sex-trafficking ring. But as depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.

We see glimpses of his childhood with an abusive father and feel his impotence at not being able to help his mother. We glimpse footage of a girl killed in Iraq (is it Iraq?) and we understand that somewhere along the way, Joe wasn’t there for her as well. His world is a kaleidoscope of failures both real and imagined: Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?

Some have compared You Were Never Really Here to Taxi Driver, some to Taken — both understandable references. The film it reminded me most of is John Boorman’s Lee Marvin–starring genre deconstruction Point Blank, which also disposes of the particulars of its standard-issue crime story and opts to create meaning through style. But another film it closely resembles is Ramsay’s own We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which Tilda Swinton’s character’s overwhelming sense of maternal guilt cast her in a kind of surreal waking hell, as she repeatedly replayed her recollections (some clearly unreliable) of a failed parenthood. In Ramsay’s cinema, emotion is memory, and it feeds the present and the future.

So, in You Were Never Really Here, Joe’s absence is both his great shame and his great skill: When he infiltrates a bad guy’s compound, he vanishes. The film’s action scenes…well, the film has no action scenes, that’s the whole point. When we catch up to a confrontation, whatever has to happen has already happened — we catch a glimpse of a bloodied head, a slit throat, a shot of our hero stepping away from the camera. Because he disappears; that’s what he does, for better and for worse. He’s like a superhero whose special powers are self-loathing and self-negation. As much as he needs to break free of his demons, his demons are also partly the reason why he’s able to do what he does. He could even be a stand-in for an artist, come to think of it.

It would have been quite a story if Ramsay’s buzzer-beating masterpiece had wound up snatching the Palme d’Or at Sunday’s ceremony. Alas, it had to settle for two awards: Best Screenplay (huh?) and Best Actor, the only two prizes at Cannes that can go to one film, which suggests that some on Pedro Almodóvar’s jury genuinely adored it. Instead, the Palme went to The Square, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s very funny and cutting exploration of utopianism and class, and the Grand Jury Prize to Robin Campillo’s powerful ACT UP drama, 120 BPM. (I reviewed both films here.) Best Director went to Sofia Coppola, the Ayatollah’s own daughter, for her excellent The Beguiled, and another Best Screenplay award went to Yórgos Lánthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (Those reviews are here.)

Meanwhile, the Jury Prize went to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which many felt would have been a natural for the Palme. And I was also gratified to see a Best Actress award for Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, a movie which most critics here seemed to detest but which I found quite moving. Almodóvar promised us some surprises early in the evening, but his jury delivered a slate of winners that seemed pretty close to what everyone had predicted — which was something of a relief, perhaps, after last year’s calamitously bizarre list of awardees. Good for them. And who knows? Maybe this lackluster competition year will one day look like a mind-blowing feast of cinematic riches. But in my mind, I’ll probably remember Cannes 2017 as the time when Lynne Ramsay held many of us rapt with anticipation — and then delivered a film for the ages.

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Paul Thomas Anderson Reclaims His Loose, Wiggy Side in Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson was making serious movies long before he started making “serious” movies, ponderous works of certified art like There Will Be Blood and The Master. His earliest pictures, like Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, and even the later Magnolia, were wily, imperfect, vibrating with life like yeast springing to action in warm water. They were serious without advertising their sincerity, and their raggedy, stringy edges were proof of Anderson’s dedication to craftsmanship rather than evidence of a lack of it: You could see that he cared about beauty and structure and precision, but the vitality of his characters came first, elbowing all else out of the way if necessary.

But in his last two pictures Anderson has shown a preoccupation with bigger-than-life, flawed men and epic themes that can best be summed up by commodious white-elephant-art thesis sentences like “Mankind! What price hubris?” Maybe that’s why Anderson’s latest, a faithfully woolly-brained adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s West Coast detective novel Inherent Vice, is such a huge relief, as if a giant gas bubble had finally, with great effort, reached the surface of the pond with a cathartic blurp.

Inherent Vice is in some ways a godawful mess, indulgent in a way a less
respected director would never be able to get away with. And it’s two and a half hours long not because it needs to be, but because it can be. (Pynchon’s novel is relatively slender.) But there’s some zip to it, and Anderson appears to be reconnecting with the pleasure of directing a large ensemble of actors: Some of them come and go in the plot like casual visitors, kicking their shoes off for a moment and then disappearing for long stretches. Inherent Vice is just that kind of movie: an open house for all sorts of weirdos and misfits and gloriously off-kilter savants, the sort of thing Anderson pulls off best.

This adaptation is in some ways an improvement on the book: Pynchon’s prose is highly entertaining, but his frenetic pileup of imagery can also make you feel you’re in the company of a strung-out squirrel gathering nuts for the coming apocalypse, or at least just the winter. Anderson captures the wired syncopation of Pynchon’s dialogue, but he opens it out, giving it air and space. (Come to think of it, that’s probably how you end up with a two-and-a-half-hour movie.) Most of all, he had a great deal of fun with the casting: Joaquin Phoenix is Pynchon’s half-canny, half-stoned-out-of-his-gourd private detective Doc Sportello, a scruffy romantic who’s still in thrall to ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the kind of clean-cut hippie chick just about anybody would be in love with in 1970 Los Angeles. (The story takes place in a fictional surfers’ Shangri-La known as Gordita Beach, a Manhattan Beach stand-in.) Shasta shows up out of nowhere, desperate for a favor; Doc obliges, setting off on a noodly trek that, after a brief and ill-advised stop-in at Chick Planet Massage, leads him into the custody of his nemesis, Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, a dimwitted cop and wannabe actor.

The pleasures of Inherent Vice lie chiefly in wondering who’s going to show up next, and how: Benicio Del Toro shambles onto the scene as a sleepy-eyed, dissolute lawyer with the superbly Pynchonesque name Sauncho Smilax. Jena Malone is fragile and touching as a recovering dope addict who’s hoping Doc can find her husband, confused idealist and beach-bum saxophonist Coy Harlingen — and since there is no one better suited to play a confused idealist and beach-bum saxophonist than Owen Wilson, Anderson, astutely, got him.

The plot takes a thousand and one hairpin turns, leaving a thousand and one hairpins behind. By the end of it, you’re not quite sure what happened. But as it’s happening, at least you’ve got Phoenix, in an assortment of rumpled denim shirts and stripy pants, sporting In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida sideburns that stretch across his wan cheeks like furry scimitars. He’s an enjoyable caricature of a caricature, a spacey, paranoid genius who peers out at the world, and stumbles through it, like a boho Mr. Magoo.

Inherent Vice isn’t the towering masterpiece that those who admired There Will Be Blood and The Master were probably hoping for, and thank God for that. It’s loose and free, like a sketchbook, though there’s also something somber and wistful about it — it feels like less of a psychedelic scramble than the novel it’s based on. Shot by Anderson regular Robert Elswit, it has a gorgeously hazy, neon-lit glow. And though it’s characteristically Andersonian in its attention to detail, it also shows, once again, what he can do with actors when he’s not treating them as grand symbols of humanity. Losers, dreamers, arrogant meatheads who still have soul, none of them bearing placards to indicate what major themes of literature or art or existence they stand for: These are Anderson’s people, and in Inherent Vice, they swarm around him, marching him back in the direction of termite art.

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Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance in “Her” Might Make America Love Him Again

In Spike Jonze’s new sci-fi romance, Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a divorcé who rebounds by falling in love with his smartphone. On a recent Wednesday, however, he’s a delinquent boyfriend, leaving his iPad abandoned on a chair in a Lebanese restaurant as he bounces off to the parking lot for a smoke. After a few puffs, he reconsiders and darts back inside, lest the well-dressed ladies at the next table snatch it to pay for a month of hummus.

“They said they were going to steal it!” Phoenix yelps. “I thought they looked nice!”

Back in his seat, he spins around and points, “What is that, by the way?” When the two women duly pivot, he steals the blonde’s purse. “Classic move! Classic move!” he teases them. “C’mon guys, we’re all playing here.”

It’s unclear if his victims even know they’re tangling with the three-time Oscar-nominated star of Gladiator, Walk the Line, and The Master as well as the upcoming Her, which has been racking up awards on its way to an all-but-inevitable a Best Picture nomination.

Although the 39-year-old actor is famous for playing hotheads, in person he’s a goof. Phoenix is one of the major talents of his generation, but he’d rather gush about DJ Premier (“He’s such an amazing artist!”) than tout his own creative process. In his black jeans and gray-streaked, shoulder-length hair, he looks more like a struggling grunge guitarist than a reluctant red-carpet walker who’s all too familiar with tuxedos.

The ladies giggle nervously, not sure if they’ve been punked. But they have definitely been Phoenixed — flummoxed and fascinated by this charismatic joker.

We’ve all been Phoenixed. Five years ago, with still-fresh accolades from Walk the Line and a fantastic performance in the then-upcoming James Gray romance Two Lovers, Phoenix famously swore he had given up acting for a rap career. He grew a beard and spent the next 12 months convincing the world it was true: brawling at Miami nightclubs; performing a disastrous set in Vegas, described by Rolling Stone as “nothing short of a train wreck”; talking only about hip-hop during press for Two Lovers, his “final” film; and, of course, rattling David Letterman by refusing to play along with the grin-and-charm publicity circuit. (Letterman arguably deserved it: When Phoenix first appeared on his show in 1998, he was so gawky that the host compared him to Pauly Shore.)

More than 5 million viewers saw Phoenix’s mumbling stunt live on The Late Show, and millions more caught it on YouTube. Only a fraction saw the reason behind it: the Casey Affleck mockumentary I’m Still Here, a tricky and disconcertingly deadpan dissection of the media machine, which had devoured Phoenix’s music-career mistakes like junk food. (Typical talking-head snark: “Is it a hoax? Do we care?”)

Even audiences who saw the final film left confused. It was, Affleck conceded, “a hard movie to watch,” even as he praised Phoenix for giving “a terrific performance . . . the performance of his career.” The film made only $408,983 at the box office, even as bearded Joaquin became a national joke. Ben Stiller mocked him at the Oscars, blundering around the stage while presenting the cinematography award and sticking his chewing gum on the crystal podium.

The experiment hinged on people knowing the real Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t a whiny, idiot egotist who snorted coke and sniffed hookers’ butts. But people didn’t.

“When I was writing ‘BYE! GOOD’ on my hand, I thought people would be like, ‘OK, this is not happening. This can’t be real,'” Phoenix muses. “But whenever I did that really over-the-top stuff, some people would doubt it, but then some people would go for it more.”

Was he surprised people really believed he was a shuffling doofus who didn’t comb his hair?

“Well, I haven’t combed my hair right now,” he chuckles. “And I do have a great shuffle.”

The root of I’m Still Here is Phoenix’s frustration with fame. That feels true. His parents raised him to be a star but also raised him to see through the bullshit.

Arlyn and John Phoenix (then surnamed Bottom) met hitchhiking in California in 1969. The nomadic hippies quickly built a family, adding to their brood every two years: River was born in Oregon, Rain in Texas and, in 1974, Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico, where the family had followed the controversial Children of God cult, which discouraged TV and newspapers and promoted all-ages sex. (River later confessed to Details magazine that he lost his virginity at age four.) Two more sisters, Liberty and Summer, followed.

Joaquin was raised in Caracas, where his father was the cult’s “archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean.” Despite Dad’s fancy title, the kids supported the family by dancing for pocket change on the streets while their parents gradually distanced themselves from the group. When Joaquin was three, the same year the family unanimously became vegetarian, they fled to Miami on a cargo ship.

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By five, Joaquin’s world had changed radically: The family resettled in L.A., where Arlyn was secretary to the head of casting at NBC. (At home, the only TV channel they had was PBS.) To celebrate their resurrection, they gave themselves a new last name: Phoenix.

The Phoenix family lived a dual life: half hippie, half Hollywood. There was no formal schooling. Instead, the kids busked in Westwood and carpooled to auditions. River appeared on Family Ties and after-school specials about dyslexia; Joaquin had roles on Hill Street Blues, Murder, She Wrote, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The brothers crossed paths once when Joaquin landed a cameo on River’s goofy CBS musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

But while River looked like an innocent heartthrob, the darker, stockier Joaquin was stereotyped into more somber, sidekick roles. The very first line Steve Martin says about the character played by 15-year-old Joaquin (then going by Leaf) in the movie Parenthood is, “There’s a kid with problems.”

That year, in his first-ever print interview, he chirped to the L.A. Herald-Examiner, “I am different, but I don’t really mind. I enjoy it.” After Parenthood, he took a six-year, self-imposed break to dodge what he dismissed as “banana in a tailpipe” roles, then returned to acting at 21 for Gus Van Sant’s To Die For as a dumb high school punk seduced into murdering Nicole Kidman’s husband. The film is a comedy, but Phoenix and his future best friend and brother-in-law Affleck play the outcasts-turned-killers as arrestingly sincere — you could plop their characters into any serious teen drama.

“It was when I first met Casey and I remember thinking, ‘We have to play this totally straight, but people are probably going to think that Gus just found kids on the street,'” Phoenix recalls. He smirks. “Maybe he kind of did.”

His younger sister Summer swore to W that Joaquin was the funniest one in the family, but despite his insistence that he wanted to do a big, dumb comedy, the roles kept getting gloomier: a hippie awaiting execution in Return to Paradise, a snuff-film peddler in 8MM, and finally, in his first prestige blockbuster, Gladiator, as the bloodthirsty Emperor Commodus.

Commodus could have been played as camp. He did, after all, adore wearing head-to-toe white leather (actually faux, in accordance with Phoenix’s veganism). Yet Phoenix layered in Commodus’s pain and insecurity. He honestly can’t understand why everyone — his father, his sister, his empire — prefers the slave Maximus, sniffling to his dad, “I would butcher the whole world if you would only love me.”

The butcher’s unexpected depth won Phoenix his first Oscar nomination and an exhausting spin on the awards circuit. He went on Letterman and forgot his own birthday.

Joaquin Phoenix had made his reputation playing tragic characters. Yet what calcified his public image as a tortured actor happened during his teenage hiatus: his panicked phone call to 911 as he watched his beloved older brother die outside the Viper Room. The call was broadcast across TV news outlets, the worst moment of his life served up for public consumption.

When Joaquin returned to the screen two years later, River’s shadow was something he couldn’t dodge and wouldn’t discuss. He did few interviews and was rarely pictured in the tabloids, preferring to stay at home with his girlfriend of three years, Liv Tyler, and best friend Casey Affleck, who eventually married Joaquin’s sister Summer. Following his breakup with Tyler, Joaquin’s date to premieres and award shows most often was his mother or one of his sisters. He kept his world small and his ears closed to media chatter, trying to let the work speak for itself.

But as his films got harder, so did the press tours — and the sense that Phoenix really might not enjoy being so different.

After capturing the drunk and unhinged Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix voluntarily checked himself into rehab to clear his head and, he quipped, rally support for his second Oscar nod. (Not that he really cared if he won. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie and been, like, ‘That was fucking amazing — was he nominated for that?'” he says. “Maybe we should just do the awards 20 years later and then you can actually tell if something’s any good.”)

He soon checked himself out and was barraged by journalists prodding him to say he drew on River’s fatal overdose to reflect Cash’s pain at losing his older brother in a table-saw accident. He shut them down, storming out of an interview with Rolling Stone. On the red carpet at the film’s L.A. premiere, he turned the tables on an AP reporter. “Do I have a large frog in my hair?” he asked. “Something’s crawling out of my scalp.” When the journalist awkwardly demurred, Phoenix pressed on. “No, but I feel it. I’m not worried about the looks. I’m worried about the sensation of my brain being eaten.”

Three years later, Phoenix was back on Letterman acting like his mind actually had been devoured.

The intro of I’m Still Here is a fast-forward through his life: young Phoenix leaping off a Panamanian waterfall, a barely older Phoenix singing on a street corner with his siblings in matching gold jumpsuits and, finally, a grown-up Phoenix pacing in his Hollywood Hills backyard overlooking the Los Angeles nightlife, wondering, “I don’t know what happened to me first, whether they said that I was emotional and intense and complicated or whether I was truly complicated and intense and then they responded to it.”

Truth? Fiction? Truth as fiction? Phoenix won’t concede an inch. The kiddie-band clip was real, but the Panama footage was fake — Affleck shot it with a child actor in Hawaii and re-recorded it over a VHS copy of Paris, Texas until it looked vintage. As for that vulnerable-sounding quote, Phoenix laughs, “How fucking stupid is it to think about yourself in that way?”

Still, he makes it hard to trust his words. Asked if he still speaks Spanish, he regretfully says no, “because I’m in California and nobody speaks Spanish here.” Then he stuffs his cheeks full of tabbouleh and deadpans, “Do I have something in my teeth?”

Ultimately, it’s his work ethic that proves his rap career was a stunt. He spent five months training himself to lower his voice two octaves to mimic Johnny Cash. If he had truly wanted to rap, he’d have rapped better.

Given the ratio of people who watch entertainment TV to people who watch art-house flicks, it’s no wonder a vague sense lingers that Phoenix actually went crazy — and that if he didn’t, his duped fans deserve to be mad. Matt Damon told the New York Times he warned Phoenix and Affleck, “If they don’t know whether it’s a joke, they will not forgive you, and they will savage your movie.”

“We never approached it like a hoax — in fact, it became the burden of it,” Phoenix sighs. “Hoax, to me, implies that the purpose of it is just to fool people.” But the prank had become the story. Everyone was asking if Joaquin Phoenix had gone crazy. No one was talking about the entertainment news nightmare he’d wanted to expose, a feeding frenzy he felt was so vital to examine that he risked his career at the height of his success.

Three years later, the exponential growth of Twitter has led to an even steeper rise in Internet hoaxes, memes for a day, and tweets heard around the world. Now that every unhinged sorority girl, asshole airline passenger, or kid taking a selfie next to his grandmother’s casket can be a 24-hour media joke, I’m Still Here feels increasingly vital. And now that we’re certain the whole thing was a stunt, Phoenix’s personal risk, which he likens to “standing on a cliff and thinking about jumping, and just having your friend push you,” feels even braver.

After I’m Still Here was locked, Phoenix confessed everything to his agents and told them he was looking for work. They weren’t happy but they forgave him. “I don’t think they were ever going, ‘Fuck, we’re losing a real money-maker here — this is a bummer, what are we going to do?'” he laughs. “I make them nothing every fucking year.”

Phoenix resolved to let the chatter die down while he waited for a good part. Months ticked past. I’m Still Here came out in September 2010 and he was still waiting for the right role, fueling the debate about whether his retirement from acting had been real. He reportedly turned down the role of the Incredible Hulk in The Avengers. He didn’t know what he was waiting for, only that his first film after all the fuss couldn’t be a lark or a flop.

“It’s like you’re not in a relationship and you get lonely, so you’re like, ‘I just want to hook up and be with somebody and just do it.’ You’re probably going to fuck it up when you do meet that good person because you’ve just been in this other fucking game,” he explains. “It’s a ridiculous analogy, but I think when the right thing does come, it’s undeniable, and you’re in the right place and ready to give yourself to that completely.”

Finally, in April 2011, Paul Thomas Anderson announced that Phoenix would play the lead in his ambitious period drama The Master. That took another five months to start shooting. By the time The Master was finally released in September 2012, four years had passed since Two Lovers, Phoenix’s last real film — a gap even he barely believes. (He checks his IMDb page on his phone and chuckles, “I’m looking this up?”)

In the first scene of The Master — the first glimpse of Phoenix playing someone other than himself since 2008 — he pokes his head up from behind the rail of a World War II battleship in a military helmet, squinting anxiously as if preparing for attack. The image is apt. But critics ceased fire when they saw his Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, animalistic veteran who lurches across the screen like his legs are caught in a trap.

Freddie is frail but frightening, and he thoroughly Phoenixes an egotistical cult leader named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In scene after scene, the two men wrestle, mentally and even physically. Dodd tries to tame Quell’s savage psyche, while Quell flails for Dodd’s affection, being too bull-headed to accept that the cause uses him as a Don’t.

Hoffman was cast first; he urged Anderson to hire Phoenix because he “scares me.” Phoenix lived up to both of his reputations: the madman and the artist.

On set, instead of hitting his marks, he’d wander wherever the moment demanded. Onscreen, he feels raw and looks ragged — his cheeks gaunt, his eyes pinched and suspicious. On a first viewing, you’re not sure if you’re watching an actor embrace insanity or succumb to it. It’s a hell of a performance, and it won Phoenix his third Oscar nomination.

He took the awards circuit as seriously as ever, which is to say not at all. When the Los Angeles Film Critics Association presented him with the Best Actor plaque, he wisecracked, “I’m assuming that the Los Angeles film critics were banned from seeing Lincoln.” When Meryl Streep called his name among the Academy Award nominees, Phoenix looked at his lap, shook his head and continued chewing his gum. It looked rude, but the Oscars had attacked first: In his show-opening number, Seth MacFarlane crooned, “There’s Joaquin in his threads, hope he’s on his meds.”

Anderson didn’t mind. “Listen, God, how mad can you be at an actor that’s that good at his job and that bad at promoting your film?” he insisted to Time Out London. “I want my movie stars to be dangerous, annoyed and incapable of taking horseshit. I prefer them that way.”

Statuettes aside, it’s Phoenix’s follow-up film — Spike Jonze’s Her — that feels like his official comeback. His Theodore Twombly — lonely ex-husband, former L.A. Weekly writer, and man who spends too much time talking to screens — is his most normal character, well, ever. Paradoxically, audiences weaned on Joaquin the Weirdo can finally trust that he’s acting.

Her is set in a Los Angeles that feels about two eye blinks in the future. No one wears sci-fi leotards; they’re in tasteful, high-waisted tweeds. Most people also wear an earpiece that connects to their next-generation smartphone, an all-in-one device with an upgraded Siri programmed with intuition, empathy, curiosity and the ability to learn and evolve.

After speed-reading a book of names in 0.02 seconds, Theodore’s operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, dubs herself Samantha. She just as quickly becomes his best friend and, eventually, his girlfriend. With the device snuggly safety-pinned into his breast pocket so her camera faces the world (a touch Phoenix brainstormed himself), the two go on dates to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the beach. At night, they lounge in his room and have, yes, phone sex.

Theodore and Samantha live a full and complex relationship arc that couldn’t exist without Johansson’s brisk and pitch-perfect voice performance. But technically, Her is still a one-person (or really, one-human) love story about a man who’s also relearning to love himself. And the only face of their romance is Phoenix’s.

“He represents both characters onscreen,” Jonze explains by phone from Miami, where he’s in the thick of his own press tour. “His reaction is what helps give her credibility.” When Samantha talks, Phoenix reacts, his keen green eyes absorbing her words while his expressive eyebrows furrow down in frustration or lift up in wonderment. In some single-take stretches, all he does is react, quietly going from cranky to enchanted to cracking up as she convinces him to stop sulking and get out of bed.

Jonze started work on the script during the last months of postproduction on Where the Wild Things Are, the same stretch where Phoenix was freaking out the media. They barely knew each other, so Jonze didn’t know what to believe. “That Letterman performance, I saw it on YouTube when it came out, and it was so convincing I didn’t think he could be faking it,” Jonze admits. “I loved it either way. So fearless! To not care, to really not care what anyone thinks of him on that level, is just so punk rock.”

Jonze had admired Phoenix’s past movies — “He’s so alive onscreen, he’s so surprising” — but didn’t know if Phoenix was in fact retired, or if the man nominated for awards for playing madman, killer, and drunk was right for cuddly Theodore, Jonze’s most personal role.

The week Jonze finished his final draft of Her, he went to the actor’s house and showed him the script. “That openness and that playfulness and realness and honestness, it’s exactly who he is,” Jonze says. “There’s nothing pretentious about him. I realized, ‘Oh, this is a guy who takes his work seriously but doesn’t take himself seriously.’ Within the first 10 minutes, I knew he was the guy that I wanted to be in this movie.”

With no visible co-star besides minor parts played by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, Phoenix’s face fills the screen. “The name of the camera was very close to my fucking eye,” he groans. To help the actor feel comfortable under such close scrutiny, Jonze winnowed the production down to as few as six crew members, with original voice actress Samantha Morton around the corner saying her lines from inside a plywood box. (Johansson was dubbed in during the editing process when Jonze realized he needed a voice with more confidence and immediacy than what he and Morton had originally conceived, though he hastens to add, “Samantha deserves credit for giving Joaquin and the movie and me so much.”)

“The environment on set was very intimate. Everybody respected and was affected by what Joaquin was doing,” Jonze says. “When we’d cut, the set would stay quiet. That’s really special.”

Phoenix, of course, brushes off compliments. “As long as you’re not visibly shaking in front of a camera, anyone could give a great performance with the right script and the right director.” He saves his praise for the cast of the new Star Trek, a film he adores, calling their work “fucking brilliant.”

He insists, “It’s even more difficult to stand with a half-made, fake-ass fucking set with some weird fucking wig and say a bunch of technical dialogue and not have the benefit of people going, ‘Well, this is important work so let’s give it its space.’ Everyone’s going, ‘C’mon, jerk-off! Let’s do this!'”

Maybe he’ll do a blockbuster like that someday. Maybe he won’t. “I love comedies and I love action movies,” he says. For now, he again feels like an actor who’s confident about his options.

“I’m sure there were times when I went, ‘Oh, fuck, it’s going to be hard to do the movies that I want to do after this. Am I going to be battling this shit?'” Phoenix admits of his I’m Still Here experiment. He shrugs. “But you’re always battling some shit that you fucking said, so it doesn’t really make a difference.”

To prove he’s mended all possible fences, Phoenix’s next film, The Immigrant, is by Two Lovers director James Gray, who has forgiven him for hijacking their last publicity tour. Did Gray make Hollywood’s most unpredictable prankster pinkie-swear he won’t pull that stunt again? “No, we didn’t,” Phoenix pledges, suddenly looking serious. “We didn’t make jokes about that.”

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Her: iLove, American Style

The terrible reality of modern life is that even beautiful young people on a first date can’t go a whole evening without checking their phones. We need to be potentially connected to every possibility at all times; just allowing the present to happen is becoming increasingly foreign. That’s the idea Spike Jonze is scratching at in his futuristic romance Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, an about-to-be-divorced Los Angeles writer who falls in love with an operating system, one designed not only to run his laptop and devices but to help him get through life; it intuits and meets his every need. That setup might sound weirder than it is: The voice of this OS — she calls herself Samantha — is Scarlett Johansson’s, and if you heard it, shimmering into your brain through an earpiece all day, every day, as Theodore does, you’d fall in love with it, too.

That voice is very real. The complication is that it belongs not to a real woman but to an algorithmic construct. In case you haven’t guessed, Theodore is using technology to avoid the pain of real human connection. And that’s the problem with Her, too: Jonze is so entranced with his central conceit that he can barely move beyond it. This is a movie about a benumbed person that itself feels chloroformed, zonked out, even in those moments when Jonze is clearly striving for depth of feeling. Its metaphors are more obvious than the bricks that cruel mouse Ignatz used to hurl at poor, lovelorn Krazy Kat, and yet not nearly as direct. Instead of just being desperately heartfelt, Her keeps reminding us — through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s somber-droll camera work, through Phoenix’s artfully slumped shoulders — how desperately heartfelt it is.

Theodore knows, just as you do, that real-life relationships are messier than anything we can channel through a handheld device. He still misses his soon-to-be-ex-wife (a desperately human prickly pear played by Rooney Mara), and his close platonic confidant (a colorlessly likable Amy Adams) has plenty of troubles of her own. But he just can’t help his infatuation with Samantha. She isn’t supposed to have feelings, but thanks to some miracle of science, she returns Theodore’s affections. The two embark on rambling adventures through the city — Theodore tucks the Samantha-pod device in his shirt pocket, so she can peek out at the world through a little lens. She’s a girlfriend you can literally keep in your pocket. The relationship is too good, and too wrong, to last.

But even as he acknowledges the uncontrollability of human relationships, Jonze never does anything so passionate as let go. There are many, many feelings stuck into Her, pin-cushion-style, but the result is a kind of overstuffed stupefaction. Jonze and Van Hoytema take great care with the visuals, working hard to hit notes of longing and mournfulness. At one point, a shot of airborne, sunlit dust motes transmutes into a field of falling snowflakes. How serene! How lovely! But what do dust motes have to do with snowflakes? Sometimes a technical trick can be too gorgeous, so previsualized that it comes off as a contrivance.

Much of the dialogue sounds premeditated, too. (This is the first picture Jonze has written as well as directed.) There’s an old journalism rule about always using “says,” never “opines” or “sighs.” Her opines and sighs all over the place. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel,” Theodore confides glumly to Samantha. “And from here on out, I’m not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” In the guise of being direct, the movie is actually maddeningly coy.

We’re supposed to feel so much for Theodore in his Tom Selleck mustache, oh-so-winsomely plucking at a ukulele as he lounges in his underfurnished bachelor apartment; his life is as empty as his bookshelves. Phoenix is sometimes an astonishing actor, and not just when he’s playing Johnny Cash; working with director James Gray in particular, in pictures like Two Lovers and We Own the Night, he has given astute, resonant performances, stripped of fussy mannerisms. But in Her, he’s a stylized, mumbly drifter, so attached to his performance that he’s barely attached to us. Johansson’s voice, as plush and light-reflecting as velveteen, is the movie’s saving grace; Samantha is the one character in Her who seems capable of delight. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role and had completed the movie when, at the last minute, Jonze substituted Johansson. Morton is a terrific actress, but in this instance Jonze’s instincts were golden. The movie isn’t just unimaginable without Johansson — it might have been unbearable without her.

Theodore doesn’t know what he wants, and probably fears that even if he knew, he wouldn’t be able to get it. What human being hasn’t felt that way? But it’s hard to respond to onscreen romantic trauma and feelings of disconnection when they’re so wan and wispy. There are whole chunks of Her, so arduously layered with soft-focus pain and cautious happiness, that could have been lifted from those ’80s phone commercials touting the benefits of “staying connected.” Theodore, like James Stewart in Vertigo, is in love with an illusion. The difference is that this spectacle and all its ideas would fit on the screen of your iPod.

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The Master: From the Window to the Wall

There’s something startlingly noncommittal about many of the initial reviews of The Master that leaked out following the impromptu screenings writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson organized in 70mm-equipped houses across the country, and later in response to the film’s official bow at the Venice Film Festival. This is perhaps the natural, if not most productive, response to a film that, like the central character played by Joaquin Phoenix, resists conforming to any preconceived template of what it could or should be.

In admitting that “Master” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, offering a new twist on the roiling vulnerability Anderson has always highlighted)—the figurehead of a growing faith movement in 1950s America—was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson set up expectations of an exposé of the origins of Scientology that would satisfy everyone who clucked approvingly when Katie swept Suri from the snatches of the Sea Org. Instead, Anderson has delivered a free-form work of expressionism, more room-size painting than biopic, star vehicle, or character study, mirroring Hubbard’s story when convenient while strenuously avoiding direct representation. As with Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Anderson takes what he needs from history to recast his own story, yet he has never made a film so elusive.

Structurally similar to the Oscar-winning Blood, The Master begins with the origin story of how an iconoclast joins a community that he’ll then struggle to live within, leading to a final confrontation with a man with whom he shares an adversarial and primal connection. Here, that iconoclast is Freddie (Phoenix), a Navy man we meet in the South Pacific in the waning days of World War II. He’s a pervert and a drunk who’s equally likely to kick a party into high gear by whipping up homemade booze or bring it to a dead halt by acting like a fucking weirdo. Did the war do it to him, or did collective catastrophe give him a space in which to almost blend in? Forced to assimilate back into the real world, he takes a gig as a department store photographer. He’s probably in it for access to chemicals he can treat as liquor, but the job also gives this longtime itinerant a measure of control—in a circus replica of postwar domestic-consumer fantasy. He can be in the system and at the same time gnaw away at it. That’s a mode of being that he’ll repeat. Always on the run from some scrape, Freddie eventually ends up passing out drunk on a yacht carrying Dodd and his family.

“Above all, I am a man,” Dodd tells Freddie. “Just like you.” Dodd teaches Freddie not to apologize for who he is—namely, “a scoundrel”—but also makes it plain that to accept the literal free ride the Dodds can offer, Freddie will have to submit to the Master’s conversion therapy. His teachings are mostly designed to help followers control their emotions by accessing their past experiences, either in their current lives or previous ones. In Freddie, he has himself a stowaway who has chewed through every leash ever clipped to his collar, who attempts to seduce adult women by passing notes (“Do you want to fuck?”), who has never encountered a household or industrial chemical that he hasn’t tried to drink. In their first “processing” session, Dodd repeatedly asks Freddie a question: “Do your past failures bother you?” If anything, from what we’ve seen, they don’t bother him enough, or, at least, he seems incapable of learning from them: His safe word is “away”; his default mode is “at sea.” Can he change? Does he want to?

The Master’s “processing” is surely modeled to some extent on Scientology’s “auditing,” but the exercises Dodd leads are not unlike what might have gone on in the era’s acting classes. Processing puts Freddie inside scenes and feelings from his past—essentially the state method acting tries to get to through affective memory. If what The Master is “about” can even be boiled down, then it might be about acting: To ask if a person’s nature is inherently fixed or if it can be engineered from the outside is to essentially ask if one person can teach another how to act.

It follows that Phoenix’s performance is the most easily embraceable element of the movie, not least because, in its all-in commitment and sometimes baffling physicality, it seems to reflect Phoenix’s own past-life experience of all-in performance as self-destruction. (Remember, this guy hasn’t made a movie since I’m Still Here.) In the film’s thrilling first half, devoted to Freddie’s wanderings and first immersion in “the cause,” Phoenix tips toward comedy. Shoulders hunched, arms swinging, his face snarled to one side in the picture definition of a mug, his body language is live-action Popeye, without muscles. In the second half, as Dodd draws out Freddie’s tendency toward violence as defense, anything cartoonish hardens. The relationship and performances driving it hit their peak in an incredible single shot of the two in side-by-side jail cells: One man is a frenzy of rage; the other remains fixed and contained, yet both master and servant are ultimately reduced to screaming children.

The film rises and falls on the magnetic pull between these two. We’re never fully allowed inside of their bond, in part because Anderson refuses to give viewers a fixed point of emotional identification. A scene in which Dodd sings and dances with a roomful of naked women seems to be a fantasy, but whose? Are these the idle imaginings of antisocial pervert Freddie? Is Dodd practicing the old stage trick of picturing his audience without armor? Or is the following scene, wherein Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) busts his balls while simultaneously offering them mechanical relief, a signal that the apparent male fantasy was in fact a woman-behind-the-man’s paranoid delusion?

Is this all vague enough for you? The film’s ambiguity could hardly be unintentional, but more interesting is Anderson’s use of sumptuous technique to tell a story defined by withholding. The viewing experience, akin to grasping for something just out of reach in a dream or trying to read subtitles through an old pair of glasses, is neatly mirrored by one of Dodd’s exercises, in which Freddie is forced to pace a room and describe the same wall and the same window with new language each time. It’s a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis. You might wish it gave you more in terms of comfort food pleasure, but that’s not Anderson’s problem. You’ve just seen too many movies about incommunicative fuck-ups who manage to break down their defenses at some convenient third-act moment, assuring that order will be restored. By not opening up that valve, The Master forces the question of whether personality change is possible—or even advisable.

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Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master’s Master

“I’ve made six movies, and I feel like I’m only just finally figuring out how this business fucking works,” Paul Thomas Anderson says on an unseasonably mild August afternoon in the Astoria section of Queens, where later tonight he will preview his latest film for an invited audience at the Museum of the Moving Image. The movie is The Master, Anderson’s first in the five years since the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, and one of this year’s most feverishly anticipated cinematic events—a must-see status attributable to Anderson’s vaunted standing among serious film buffs, to the secretive nature of the production (at a time when we know far too much about most movies before we see them), and, mostly, to the film’s subject matter: the early days of a self-help religion that bears more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.

For Anderson, the Queens screening is the latest stop in an impromptu coast-to-coast tour that has included surprise public showings of The Master in Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and San Francisco, weeks before the official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Those sneaks have sparked torrents of favorable Internet and social-media buzz, along with the all-too-predictable musings of the blogosphere’s Oscar-season soothsayers that Anderson’s film is “difficult” and “challenging”—in other words, not your typically pandering, sugarcoated year-end Hollywood pap. Most remarkably, all of those screenings have taken place in cinemas equipped to project Anderson’s film in his preferred format: the large-frame 70mm film process whose exceptionally clear, vivid images were once the gold standard for Hollywood’s big musicals and historical epics, and which hasn’t been in regular use since the VHS era (and hadn’t been used at all since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996).

This is partly what Anderson means, I suspect, when he says he has finally figured things out. In short, he has gone rogue. As we stroll through the streets around the museum, he recalls the battles he once fought with New Line Cinema (which produced and distributed Boogie Nights and Magnolia) over everything from poster to trailer design and how, on The Master, he has simply done everything himself, creating his own teasers for the movie and uploading them immediately to the Internet—and yes, even screening the film publicly without the approval of his new distributor, Harvey Weinstein.

“We had this idea to do a bit of a road show, because we just didn’t know, theatrically, how often we’d be able to play in 70mm,” he says, settling into an outdoor table at one of the neighborhood’s many Greek bistros. Anderson stumbled upon the format—the ancestor of IMAX—while doing camera tests with his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., and felt it was the right fit for the film. Now, together with his post-production supervisor, Erica Frauman, he has been compiling lists of 70mm cinemas and, when necessary, dispatching technicians to make sure the projectors are in full working order. Of particular interest, Anderson says, was showing the film at least a few times in grand, single-screen movie palaces, including Chicago’s Music Box and San Francisco’s Castro, where, due to the brass tacks economics of first-run film distribution (which favors multiplexes and nationwide chains), The Master would be unlikely to play during its actual commercial run.

“I have to say, it’s been great to play there, but it’s exciting how many commercial theaters are going to play it in 70,” Anderson adds. And if that all seems like a lot of fuss for a movie that mostly takes place in small, nondescript houses, apartments, and offices, The Master nevertheless conjures an epic feel. It’s a movie whose ideas are as big as any David Lean landscape.

Anderson yawns, stretches, and runs his hands through his already unkempt hair, which, coupled with his outfit of an open-collared checkered shirt, board shorts, and desert boots, gives him the appearance of a wayward, landlocked surfer. “It’s a hair-of-the-dog day for us,” he says in reference to a late night on the town in the company of his assistant director and executive producer, Adam Sommer, whom he hadn’t seen in several months. Anderson officiated at Sommer’s wedding, he tells me. “I’m an ordained minister for Rose Ministries of Las Vegas, Nevada. My sister was getting married and wanted me to preside, so she gave it to me for Christmas. She did it all online.” No wonder, I say, he finds himself drawn to religion as a subject.

Seen one way, The Master is Anderson’s second film in a row about a self-appointed prophet starting a congregation, after There Will Be Blood and its hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who agrees to let the oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) drill on his family’s land in exchange for the money he needs to build his Church of the Third Revelation. In The Master, the savior and the businessman are one and the same: the charismatic Hubbard surrogate Lancaster Dodd (played with great Wellesian flourish by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself in one early scene as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher,” and, above all, “a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man.”

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Known by his followers as Master, Dodd is the author of a book called The Cause (modeled on Hubbard’s bestselling Dianetics), which seeks to free readers from “past trauma,” revert the mind “to its inherent state of perfect,” and otherwise untangle the knots in the human psyche. This is accomplished through a series of therapies also capable—in the words of their humble creator—of ending war, poverty, and cancer. And when The Master begins, in a newly post–World War II America, Dodd and his teachings have already begun to amass a sizable following.

Into this world comes a drifter, a discharged Navy man named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who, it’s clear from the start, isn’t just another sheep to the flock. A rolling stone—or perhaps, more accurately, a manic pinball—trying to find his place in the world, Freddie first encounters Dodd when he stows away on his yacht in the San Francisco Bay. Before long, the sailor’s prodigious moonshining and photography skills are put to use by the guru, who welcomes the challenge of taming the feral creature before his eyes.

“I think Master probably gets a real—what’s the word I’m looking for—that kind of hunger that must happen inside him when he gets a whiff of low self-esteem off someone,” says Anderson, who can’t remember how he first started to work on The Master, except that “I’ve always thought Hubbard was a great character, so interesting and larger than life, and kind of impossible to ignore.” (At no point before, during, or after the making of the film, Anderson stresses, did the famously litigious church make any direct or indirect inquiries about the project or otherwise try to inhibit its progress.)

From there, Anderson likens his research process to a digressive Internet search that begins one place and ends up somewhere wholly unrelated, “like when you get on YouTube looking for a sports clip and now, three hours later, you’re watching some old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” One of his Web finds was The Aberree, a Scientology-themed newsletter published from 1954 to 1965 by a Phoenix couple, Alphia and Agnes Hart, who were among Hubbard’s early adopters. (“The most certain thing about Scientology is that no one can be certain what this ‘Science of Certainty’ will come up with next,” reads the opening line of the first issue, leading off a discussion of the nascent church’s efforts to legalize itself as a religion.)

“It really was the best possible way to time-travel, reading these newsletters,” he says, “and to kind of get a sense of not just Hubbard, but the people who were really interested in the beginnings of this movement, because they were very, very hungry to treat themselves and get better, and they were open to anything. They were so incredibly optimistic.”

So The Master is ultimately “about” Scientology in much the same way that Boogie Nights was about the San Fernando Valley adult-film industry of the 1970s or There Will Be Blood was about the California oil boom of the early 20th century. That is, it functions as a secondary concern, more setting than actual subject, more subtext than text. It is a way for Anderson to bring together an assortment of his typically idiosyncratic, iconoclastic characters and a conduit to larger themes of power and paranoia, domination and submission, free will and predestination. Indeed, no less than Anderson’s previous film does The Master feel like a bold, somewhat cryptic meditation on underground forces that have shaped modern America. “Is it possible to live without some kind of master in our lives?” the movie asks, leaving it to us to decide.

For his part, Anderson is loath to see the movie as a variation on a pet theme. “Is it getting tired?” he asks when I say that Dodd and Freddie recall the surrogate father-son relationships in many of his films, beginning with the aging gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and his naive protégé (John C. Reilly) in Anderson’s 1996 debut feature, Hard Eight. He prefers to think of his Master characters as unrequited lovers, a subtle, homoerotic tension that is triangulated in the film by the presence of Dodd’s loyal, steely wife (Amy Adams). “But maybe that’s just my way of dressing it up and thinking I was doing something different this time,” he says. In any case, he seems happy that people—including us—are finally talking about something other than Scientology. “I’ve kind of loved these screenings we’ve had, because no one’s talking about Scientology anymore once they see the film. They’re just talking about how fucking good Joaquin Phoenix is.”

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And they’re right. In his “comeback” role, four years after purportedly retiring from acting to pursue a career as a rapper (only to finally let the world in on his elaborate prank), Phoenix is nothing short of astonishing. It’s a fiercely physical, animalistic performance that calls to mind the young Jack Nicholson—the one seen in Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—in its diabolical unpredictability, its paroxysms of emasculated rage.

When we first see Freddie, he’s living it up as a gregarious Navy prankster, making hooch out of torpedo fuel and waking up hungover on top of the ship’s mast (an episode Anderson borrowed from the life of his late Magnolia star, Jason Robards). But by the time Freddie ends up as a department-store-portrait photographer—one of several short-lived postwar jobs—he appears radically transformed, with the tense, rigid posture of an arthritic old man or of a tightly compressed powder keg primed to blow (and when he does, it’s terrifying). At the same time, Phoenix uses his distant, soulful eyes to imbue the character with the sense of a wounded, fragile being trying desperately to find his sea legs on solid ground, struggling to find a suitable explanation for the turning of the world.

“I knew he’d be good, but I can’t say that I expected what we got,” Anderson says between sips of white wine. “I love watching him, and I get the impression people don’t understand that there’s actually a truly inventive and disciplined actor there, which I guess is great. I would hate to say too much and uncover the mystery.” Anderson had wanted to work with Phoenix for years, ever since he offered the actor a role in Boogie Nights, which he turned down (as he did a later offer to appear in There Will Be Blood). Then, when he began casting The Master, Phoenix had temporarily gone off the acting reservation. For a while, Jeremy Renner was attached to the role, until a series of lengthy production delays forced him to drop out and left Anderson once again searching for a leading man. By that point, Phoenix was back in the movie business and ready to get his game face on.

The Master was supposed to be the movie that broke Anderson’s habit of taking breaks between projects long enough to rival one of his filmmaking idols: Stanley Kubrick. Although, as I point out, Kubrick managed to direct eight features in his first 16 years as a director, whereas he has managed only six. To which a visibly unamused Anderson responds: “Oh, fuck off. It’s been no fault of my own!”

But The Master was to have been different. Written quickly by Anderson in the wake of There Will Be Blood, the project was initially set up at a major studio—Universal—but stalled almost immediately when Hoffman (for whom Anderson had written the title role) announced that he would be busy with stage commitments for most of the next year. When Hoffman freed up, the studio had cooled on the idea, which landed the movie looking for a new home, “and it was dry as a bone,” Anderson recalls. “There were no real takers.” You’d think, I say, that the studios would have been clamoring for the next project from the director of There Will Be Blood, which became not only the biggest critical success of Anderson’s lauded career, but also his biggest box office hit (grossing $40 million domestically and another $35 million internationally on a $25 million budget). “I thought that, too!” he says. “They had me convinced that the world was mine for a few days, and then they said, ‘Not so fast.'”

It was a moment at which Hollywood’s decade-long infatuation with the independent-film world, spurred on by the breakout Sundance successes of the late 1980s and early ’90s, was coming to an abrupt end. Anderson’s erstwhile hitching post, New Line, was in the process of being swallowed up by Warner Bros. (at the same moment Warner was shuttering its nascent Warner Independent Pictures division). The Weinstein brothers had left the Miramax building. Next, Paramount announced it was curtains for their in-house “specialty” label Paramount Vantage (which distributed There Will Be Blood). “It did seem like there was a cashing out, pushing the chips across the table and saying, ‘That’s enough of that horseshit,'” Anderson says. Then the filmmaker himself started to have doubts about the Master script and went back to do several months of rewrites.

The movie might never have gotten off the ground at all were it not for the appearance of one Megan Ellison, the daughter of multibillionaire Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who had recently decided to try her hand at producing movies and brought with her a healthy appetite for maverick auteurs and commercially challenging material. (Among other Ellison-backed projects in various stages of production: new films from Wong Kar-wai, Kathryn Bigelow, and Spike Jonze.) “Suddenly, like an angel out of the sky came Megan Ellison with wings on her back, basically saying, ‘Let’s make a movie,'” Anderson says. “It was really like that after about two or three years of thinking, ‘What’s going to happen with this film?'”

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Filming finally began in 2011 in and around San Francisco, including the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Shipyard, which became the production’s home base and fostered the same feeling of close-quarters camaraderie among cast and crew that Anderson felt when shooting There Will Be Blood on location in small-town Marfa, Texas. He speaks with particular fondness of the ritual of screening “dailies” (raw, unedited footage from the previous day’s scenes) at the end of each day of shooting—an old Hollywood tradition now nearly as extinct as shooting in 70mm.

“I don’t think they do dailies much anymore because it costs money to print and project them, so now people just watch them on DVD in their hotels,” Anderson says. “But ultimately, there’s a real sense of satisfaction when you watch something that you got right, and everybody’s there in the room—you can feel it. And on the other hand, that fucking pin drops when everybody spent all that effort, and you’re there watching dailies, and everyone is collectively feeling that it’s not very good. Whether it’s performance or lighting or where the camera is—you know, there are definitely moments when people walk out of dailies with their heads really low; and that can be great, too, because inevitably, you come back really strong the next day and get a great day’s worth of work. Then you go for three days, and suddenly, there’s another bad day of dailies. It happens. On 60 days of shooting, you’re going to get some stinkers along the way. It’s just way too hard to get good stuff all the time.”

It’s refreshing to hear a director of Anderson’s stature—any director, really—speak so candidly about the difficulties of making a good movie and the doubts that can creep into even a seasoned professional’s head. “Sometimes you get cold feet as a director,” he elaborates, citing the nervousness he felt about Phoenix’s go-for-broke performance at certain times during the shoot. “Sometimes he’d do something so outlandish, and I’d think, ‘Hmm, I’m not so sure.’ And then lo and behold, six months later, you’re in the editing room, and you say: ‘Thank God. What was I thinking? How could I have possibly second-guessed that?'”

He also admits to feeling some initial trepidation about working with Harvey Weinstein—a polarizing figure in the indie-film world if ever there were—who bought The Master during post-production. Back in his New Line Cinema days, Anderson had his share of dustups with that company’s famously cantankerous CEO, Bob Shaye. But of Weinstein, who is positioning The Master to be one of his thoroughbreds in this year’s awards season, he has only good things to say.

“I showed him the film, and I sort of underestimated that he really knew the script inside and out, and he did,” Anderson says. “There was stuff missing from the film in the cut I showed him because we were still messing around with it, and he remembered things, started asking, ‘Where’s that scene?’ And he was right. I was showing him a version where I was experimenting with what could possibly not be in the film, and he knew what was missing. It was like having P.T. Barnum come into your editing room and say: ‘What the fuck is going on? Where’s the dancing girl?’ I’ve learned so much from him, just in the past couple of months that we’ve been dealing with each other. I love him.”

All told, the Paul Thomas Anderson sitting before me today seems a changed man from the piss-and-vinegar enfant terrible who once told Lynn Hirschberg, in a New York Times Magazine profile pegged to the release of Magnolia, “I’m still young, and I still have to show off,” and who expressed that cinematically in his early films with their intricately interconnected story lines, pulsating pop soundtracks, and thrilling, Scorsese-influenced tracking shots. He has changed, too, from the last time we met, four years ago, just as There Will Be Blood was heading into wide release. He has turned 40 since then, had two more children (for a total of three) with his partner Maya Rudolph, and doesn’t watch as much baseball as he used to, though he hasn’t lost his penchant for peppering his conversation with baseball metaphors. “I look around, and I’m like, ‘Where did these kids come from?'” he says of his two youngest. “It felt like two came out in the off-season, like they’re two off-season acquisitions. When did we pick them up? OK, I guess we’ve got a third baseman now. But it’s amazing. I can’t say anything new about parenthood, but having three kids is great.”

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Likewise, The Master feels every inch the work of a more mature artist, a filmmaker with nothing to prove, taking his time, gazing deeply into the heart of the old weird America. Even more than There Will Be Blood, it is a work of heightened directorial precision, in which the camera never makes an unmotivated move, and a constricting tension slowly seeps into the film through the almost imperceptible accrual of small gestures, glances, unspoken motives (plus the magnificent dissonances of Jonny Greenwood’s original score). The final meeting between Freddie and Dodd is as breathtaking as the much-celebrated one between Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview—only this time, it is words and conflicting ideologies, not bowling pins, that strike the fatal blows.

“What do you think our chances are?” Anderson asks as we settle up and start heading back to his screening. “Good,” I say, though I’m not entirely sure if he means critically, commercially, with Oscar voters, or the public at large. All filmmakers must worry about such things, whether they work at the Hollywood epicenter or dwell on the margins. Thankfully, Anderson’s angel, Megan Ellison, has already committed to backing his next project: a film version of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, a kind of stoner Chinatown set in L.A. at the end of the 1960s, and the first time the reclusive Gravity’s Rainbow author has allowed his work to be adapted for the screen. “And it’s not going to take five years,” Anderson says with a sly grin as he disappears into the night. “So you’re gonna eat your fucking words.”

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Gossip About Steve Carell, Joaquin Phoenix, and Katie Holmes

Everyday realism reached its early peak with Marty, the 1955 flick about a lonely butcher meeting a wan schoolteacher and wondering whether he should still go bowling on Saturday night.

Well, it’s back! The genre returns with Jack Goes Boating, based on Bob Glaudini‘s play about two working-class couples trying to make connections amid the pot-holes and pot luck.

The always fab Amy Ryan is Connie, an imperfect but likable funeral-home worker who gets set up with a limo driver (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who directed) as their friends, Daphne Rubin-Vega and John Ortiz, take the opposite trajectory and face shattering love problems complete with staccato dialogue and dramatic monologues. (It’s not a musical, in case you were asking.)

But the Queens-born Ryan is no everyday Jane. She was Oscar-nominated for 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, bagged two Tony nominations for revivals, and on The Office, she’s Holly Flax, the human-resources rep whose resources include romancing Steve Carell.

Our gritty yet amusing phoner went like so:

Me: Hi, Amy. My favorite line your Connie character says is, “I’m not ready yet for penis penetration.”

Ryan: [Laughs.] Who is, really?

Me: I am. You don’t know who you’re talking to!

Ryan: I like that woman. She’s a timid, shy person, but not when it comes to what she wants. She’s very direct.

Me: With lines like that, I can definitely get into the gritty drama thing.

Ryan: The film puts a spotlight on all the people we pass on the street and don’t really look at—what are they like? It’s a part of New York that’s diminishing rapidly since bankers moved in and the Carrie Bradshaws are clinging on.

Me: In my neighborhood! Was it weird being the only one added to a cast that had already done the piece at the Public Theater?

Ryan: No. They kept approaching it with new questions, so things shifted and I wasn’t a completely new kid in school in a transfer suit.

Me: You’re sort of becoming the go-to person for anti-glamourpusses—in Gone Baby Gone, for example.

Ryan: For her world, she was pretty hot! But I gravitate toward these characters anyway. I’m not conceived as a glamour girl. I feel more comfortable as an actor telling stories of everyman.

Me: But you do like being styled and fluffed for red-carpet events, right?

Ryan: I love it! You go to parties and then return all the stuff, and you don’t get the credit-card bill.

Me: Well, Oscar night is the ultimate red-carpet bonanza. Was it aptly surreal?

Ryan: Yes, and leading up to it are all the functions. You’re so relieved to finally, truly rest. It’s exhausting, but, like a roller-coaster ride, it’s a fun, happy experience. I just believe in nominations—not winning. [Laughs.]

Me: Are you coming back to The Office?

Ryan: I’m going to L.A. in a month to do a few more episodes. It’s Steve Carell’s last season. We left off where she was transferred to New Hampshire and couldn’t do a long-distance relationship.

Me: Are we talking an Emmy Award? I mean nomination.

Ryan: [Laughs.] I strive for a nomination only. Then I can get the trifecta!

Good Times and Bum Times

Double Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t go boating, but he does jump off cliffs (literally and figuratively) in the eye-opening documentary I’m Still Here. In one especially harrowing scene, Phoenix is interviewed by Ramin Setoodeh, the Newsweek reporter who later wrote the much-reviled piece about how actors who like penis penetration supposedly can’t convince as straight. It’s Godzilla vs. Queen Kong!

Bringing up Phoenix’s new anti-acting stance, Setoodeh says to the Eminem wannabe that “all the journalists waiting outside to talk to you are wondering if this is a hoax.” Phoenix explodes. “It’s hard not to get offended,” he snarls, “when you sit there with your little smile and you say, ‘We think this is a hoax.’ Because you’re talking about my life. As if my life is a fucking joke to you. You can do the ‘Some may say’ and put it on them, but it’s your question.”

Alas, your momentary joy that the twit is being confronted is quickly overpowered by the sense that Joaquin Phoenix is a much bigger oaf.

In other movie-star-interview developments, guess what the press at the junket for The Romantics wasn’t allowed to ask the cast? Anything personal! Imagine spending an hour grilling Katie Holmes and Josh Duhamel about their craft?

There were no restrictions when Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson—the satirical rock musical moving to Broadway—gave the media a mini-preview the other day. The high point had Benjamin Walker (as President Andrew Jackson) snuggling up to a journalist mid-song for the line, “You want to see my stimulus package? You’re just the right height!” On Broadway, who will he choose to do that to every night? “Whoever’s dead center,” Walker told me after the preview as I made a mental note of my future seating choice.

While I had the actor’s attention, I asked if it’s true that he turned down a role in the next XTube, I mean X-Men, flick. “The deal started to sour in a way where it was not worth leaving this show,” Walker admitted. “If I’d committed to it, I’d never forgive myself.” Me neither!

Also committed, Jackson‘s writer/director, Alex Timbers, told me how the musical has grown en route to Broadway: “We’ll have a 130-foot stack of LED tubes. And there’ll be a horse hanging over the audience.” “It’s sort of your chandelier,” I suggested, adding that if it falls, this can turn into a Godfather musical.

Michael Feinstein no longer has Dame Edna hanging over him; he has left her for Barbara Cook, the two of them starring in the lovely “Cheek to Cheek” show at Feinstein’s nightclub at the Loews Regency. “We’ll do punk, rap, and thrash,” Feinstein jokes at the outset, but instead, they sing standards—he cutely, earnestly, and with big lungs, and she with the expected creamy profundity. And they get frisky, too. When one song starts out sounding like “Fever,” Feinstein says, “I’m not Peggy Lee with her 12 facelifts. Late in her life, she was no longer singing out of her mouth. But she was great!” Cook, meanwhile, announces that Catherine Zeta-Jones didn’t deserve the Tony—and she dishes on herself, too, admitting that she once followed a hot tenor around the globe in pure lust. “The gonads have a mind of their own,” reveals Cook, unexpectedly. And one suspects she’s ready for them.

Same place, another night, and Tony nominee Orfeh was absolutely on fire, covering pop hits with a rich voice and personality and a fab husband (Wicked‘s Andy Karl) singing back-up. Someone give this lady a chart to top.

Fashion Week lured my stimulus package to the FIT Couture Council’s lunch for Karl Lagerfeld at Avery Fisher, where the designer’s food looked a bit different from everyone else’s. It turns out he’d had it personally ordered out from Nobu! If I’d known delivery was an option, I would have gotten a pepperoni pizza.

People had to sneak their own booze into Next magazine’s zanily fun Fashion’s Night Out event at Limelight Marketplace, but at least that allowed the drag queens to soberly survey the scene. In the process, they realized how removed this place is from the old Limelight (“No booze, drugs, or cock,” observed Sherry Vine) and how it’s somewhat lacking as a mall, too (“If you’re gonna make it a mall, it should have a Panda Express and a Taco Bell,” declared Mimi Imfurst). Now that’s everyday realism.

musto@villagevoice.com

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Joaquin Phoenix Goes a Very Long Way to Prove a Very Minor Point in I’m Still Here

I’m Still Here—“that Joaquin Phoenix movie”—capitalizes on an anxiety that’s very of-the-moment, uniting pop cultural phenomena as seemingly disparate as the too-stupid/good-to-be-true Jersey Shore characters, James Franco’s baffling side careers as a professional student and soap opera stud, and pretty much every thing having to do with Vincent Gallo. Basically, anything that forces us to ask: Are they fucking with me?

Directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, the film purports to document Phoenix’s high-profile “retirement” from acting, his alleged attempt to transition into a hip-hop career, and his subsequent, much-publicized meltdown. This period coincided with the promotion and release of Phoenix’s last film, Two Lovers, which, like Here, was released by Magnolia Pictures. Whether or not the retirement was contrived or permanent, Phoenix has not appeared in or publicly acknowledged shooting another film since. He has also not released any musical recordings—in fact, he’s been all but absent from the public eye since spring of last year—which is coincidentally the same time that Here’s portrait of his life ends.

At the outset of the film, Phoenix describes his acting career as a “self-imposed prison,” claiming frustration with his lack of creative control as a performer (“[I’m] just a fucking puppet”) and resentment over his obligation to maintain his celebrity persona (“I don’t want to be the Joaquin character anymore”). And so, after participating in a charity theater event with a “dream team” including Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, and “fucking Danny DeVito,” Phoenix gives a red-carpet reporter the “exclusive” news that this will be his last night as an actor.

It’s such an exclusive that it comes as a surprise to Phoenix’s publicist, who is helpless to intervene as her twice-Oscar-nominated client proceeds to obliterate any industry goodwill he might have had in a six-month flurry of drugs, shitty rapping, P. Diddy stalking (the hip-hop producer provides much-needed comic relief by riffing on his own persona, as he did earlier this year in Get Him to the Greek), and bizarre public appearances, peaking with Phoenix’s now-legendary February 2009 beyond-awkward non-interview with David Letterman. Throughout, Affleck tails Phoenix (without much explanation as to why) but largely refrains from intervening in the action, which is enabled by Phoenix’s entourage of two: a “general assistant” named Antony, and Larry, billed as Phoenix’s “caretaker.”

It’s hard to doubt the veracity of what’s onscreen: Much of what Here depicts happened in real life and in plain sight, and all throughout this period, the gossip media breathlessly reported on Phoenix’s every increasingly curious move. But just after Phoenix announced his retirement, Entertainment Weekly quoted an unnamed source who claimed that Phoenix and Affleck were perpetrating a “hoax” for the purpose of a faux-documentary. I’m Still Here was thus the target of skeptical speculation from shot one, a potential liability that Affleck and Phoenix drag into the frame, with Affleck angrily interviewing the EW reporter on camera, and Phoenix accusing Antony of selling his secrets.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Here was more provocative when it couldn’t be seen, when it existed for most of us purely in the realm of rumor. Despite, say, a report from an early screening that the film included “more male frontal nudity than you’d find in some gay porn,” I counted just two penises, both flaccid and neither filmed more gratuitously than the naked breasts that Phoenix at one point nuzzles, or as graphically as an extended shot including a still photograph of Britney Spears’s bare vagina. All of which—like the p.o.v. puke cam and the many grating scenes of Phoenix berating his paid hangers-on—feel like stock shock tactics, set within a structure too bloated and without rhythm to sustain any sort of sensation. Ostensibly the uncensored story of a life in free fall, Here doesn’t offer anything that feels as queasily startling as that Letterman performance.

Think of I’m Still Here’s first hour as prologue to that epic event of self-destruction. By the time Here regurgitates the late-night TV highlight/career lowlight, Affleck has built enough of a context—about the beleaguered artist whose true identity and creative impulses have no outlet in commercial culture—that its impact is inverted. When the studio audience laughs, it’s clear they’re laughing at him, which comes off as cruel; Phoenix seems less apathetic or out of it than paralyzed with sadness. And after the taping, he’s all too aware of what’s happened—“I’ve fucked my fucking life,” he wails. “I’m just gonna be a joke forever.” With this outburst, I’m Still Here’s psychological strategy clicks into place, and its dramatic momentum increases considerably.

Was this all staged? Probably, but does that matter if it feels true? In fact, the end credits more or less confirm I’m Still Here to be, if not a traditional work of fiction, then at least primarily a performance produced for cameras. It seems that this is a secret that the filmmakers and their distributor have been trying to protect through cryptic advertising and limited advance screening (I was required to sign an embargo/confidentiality agreement before entering the theater), hoping to keep the mystery alive. But now, knowing that I’m Still Here was more invented than accidental raises more questions than it answers.

In other words, the question of whether or not they’re fucking with us is easily settled; it’s much harder to determine why they’re fucking with us. And are they even fucking with us—the average viewer with no direct experience of what it feels like to be a celebrity, who can only make inferences and judgments based on the images that are presented to us—or are they fucking with their fellow celebrities, who stand to feel the force of the less than flattering aspects of themselves in Phoenix’s portrayal? Though clearly mocking the delusions of grandeur embodied in one of Phoenix’s rap verses—“I’m still real/I won’t kneel/I’m the one God’s chosen, bitch”—most of the film isn’t that broadly funny, or apparently playful. At once deeply felt and devastatingly cynical, I’m Still Here’s bone-dry satire couldn’t exist without the celebrity media feedback loop. But its apparent attack on the Hollywood machine is so insidery, so vicious, that to us—the everyday consumer—it’s just not clear why this stunt needed to exist at all.