Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

A Reivew of Abbott Awaits

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson; Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Maya Rudolph, Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Michael Penn, Luis Guzmán, Ricky Jay, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Alfred Molina, William H. Macy; Adapted from the novel by Chris Bachelder

(To see the official Abbott Awaits poster, click here.)

There are so very many ways for bad movies to come of good books, and so many of those ways have to do with distance: that is, with directors too insecure to stretch away from the text even when the new medium demands it, or too daft to realize they have wandered off the text’s most essential paths. Making a great movie from a great book, on the other hand, requires an unbroken chain of small miracles—which is why so few such things exist. And yet and yet and yet: here now before us is Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent adaptation of the timeless Chris Bachelder novel Abbott Awaits.

The book itself was published to widespread critical acclaim; in the words of TNYRB literary critic Mateo Campana, “There is in this world only one marriage, and all of us live it, and this novel is its definitive account.” Sam Lipsyte called it “a sly and soaring novel about fear and tenderness and family,” and Keith Lee Morris alleged Bachelder to have invented an entirely new genre known as “Existential Domestic Cosmology.” It is perhaps a surprise that a director best known for his hyperkinetic camerawork and large ensemble casts should have chosen this seemingly small, quiet project—particularly now, when wise-hearted looks at marriage seem most often relegated to the small screen, whether as drama (think Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Eric and Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights) or as comedy (say, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen as Phil and Claire Dunphy on Modern Family). But as it turns out, Existential Domestic Cosmology is a genre in which Anderson feels entirely at home.

The central casting dilemma for Abbott Awaits was neatly solved by turning to the most consistently brilliant member of Anderson’s informal rep company: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman’s many-shaded silences and unusually animated expressions (he reportedly lost forty pounds for the jowl-less role) allow Anderson to sidestep the distasteful consequences, all too common in adaptations, of excessive (i.e. any) reliance on voice-over. Riskier was Anderson’s decision to cast Maya Rudolph—his real-life life partner and the mother of his four children—as Abbott’s wife. Rudolph steers clear of SNL-style mugging and Bridesmaids pratfalls, coming through splendidly as an intelligent, conflicted, complicated woman searching for her share of grace. The cast is rounded out by the usual subjects acquitting themselves well in smaller-than-usual parts. We have Philip Baker Hall as a creepily intense pet store owner, and John C. Reilly as an obtuse but well-meaning neighbor; Melora Walters and Michael Penn as scientists researching fireflies, and Luis Guzmán as a refrigerator repairman; Ricky Jay as chief of staff at the butterfly conservatory, a spry and clean-shaven Burt Reynolds as a plumber, Julianne Moore as an obstetrician, and Alfred Molina as an unforgettable anesthesiologist.

The film’s scenes tend to run shorter than Anderson usually works, but his infamously long tracking shots function perfectly as a form of directorial patience: they allow him to explore nook after cranny in the life of Abbott, a university professor off work for the summer and thus home for the last three months of his insomniac wife’s pregnancy with their second child. Abbott spends much of his time cleaning up after their toddler daughter, scrubbing ancient raisins off of high chairs and raspberry vomitus out of car seats. He wrestles rolls of cat-sprayed carpet out to the curb, succeeds as often as he fails in attempts to deal with household emergencies, and spends his scarce free moments on the internet looking up obscure trivia, diagnosing himself with diseases he does not actually have, and forcing himself to confront the suffering of others: he clicks on link after link, finding his way to photographs of children disfigured by Chernobyl, to footage of what appears to be a weeping fetus, to interviews held with the families of trapped miners, all so as to incline himself (sincerely if artificially) toward the gratefulness he knows he should feel for the life he has.

Hoffman’s acting chops are well up to the task of endowing Abbott’s many internal paradoxes (“Abbott is not a prude about porn. Or, to put it another way, he is a prude about porn.” / “Abbott would like to think he’s a good guy, and yet his wife is up there sobbing, and he’s down here with the superglue.” / “The following prepositions are both true: (A) Abbott would not, given the opportunity, change one significant element of his life, but (B) Abbott cannot stand his life.” / “What kind of fool would cherish this? What kind of fool would not cherish this?”) with precisely the clarity and humor and genuine affect found in the source material. This is not to say, of course, that Anderson never veers from the novel, but when he does, it is in wholly justifiable ways: the story makes fully as much sense in his beloved San Fernando Valley as it did in Bachelder’s western Massachusetts, and if you’ll permit me the smallest of spoilers, the narrative is actually strengthened when Anderson, unlike Bachelder, allows Abbott and his wife to finally go ahead and buy the couch they’ve spent the whole movie searching for. (The fact that they buy it from a show-stealing William H. Macy makes the scene all the more satisfying.)

Nonetheless, the movie as a whole would likely have failed without strong work by Anderson’s crew, particularly cinematographer Robert Elswit and set designer Conny Boettger. In perhaps the most notable example, a single silent take renders up every nuance of Bachelder’s phrasing: following Abbott’s painful fall on his way up the basement stairs, we see “(t)he shirts (…) strewn, as if they had grappled at the top and then tumbled down. Their backs look broken. A blue one has an arm outstretched, as if trying to break its fall, or to reach for something out of reach.”

Abbott’s constant search for evidence of human nobility, and his struggle to do both good and well within his wholly contemporary life, are in the end invested with as much import as the most transparently Herculean of endeavors. That is to say, he too spends most of his hours and days reaching for things out of reach. It is to this film’s great credit that we never want him doing anything else.

Roy Kesey was born and raised in northern California, and currently lives with his wife and children in Maryland. His latest book is a short story collection called Any Deadly Thing. He’s also the author of a novel called Pacazo (the January 2011 selection for The Rumpus Book Club), a collection of short stories called All Over (a finalist for the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, and one of The L Magazine's Best Books of the Decade), a novella called Nothing in the World (winner of the Bullfight Media Little Book Award), and a historical guide to the city of Nanjing, China. His work has appeared in several anthologies including Best American Short Stories, New Sudden Fiction, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and The Future Dictionary of America, and in more than eighty magazines including McSweeney's, Subtropics, The Georgia Review, American Short Fiction, The Iowa Review and Ninth Letter.