We were about 45 minutes into this latest Paul Thomas Anderson piece when I realized I was completely transfixed by a movie about an uptight dressmaker who lived with his very measured sister and was making a lot of dresses for a young waitress. Not exactly Thor for a plot line or for action. I also realized I was pretty excited because I had no idea where this was headed.
The movie is set in 1950s London, and focuses a lot on gender roles and who gets what in a relationship. The central tension is between the dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his love interest / model / protege / partner, Alma (Vicki Krieps). The other major player is is Woodcock’s sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is subtly managing the board to keep her brother on the straight and narrow. In the deeper background is Woodcock’s mother, Woodcock is a mama’s boy, and the questions of matrimony and maternity are paramount throughout, even if the movie doesn’t ever come right out and say it.
So what do you need to know here? First off, the movie is ostensibly about an insufferable male tyrant type, the type of guy who simply cannot start the day with a confrontation because he has no time for confrontations — if he has a bad breakfast, he may never recover. The one who commends his own “gallantry” for eating asparagus that is not prepared the way he likes it. Were you sent here to ruin his evening?
Second off, the movie is actually about the women around him. One set is predominantly populated with the Woodcock label’s army of skilled seamstresses, who spend their days watching Woodcock eye up his dresses, and then work their magic with the needles and thread. This group is skilled but lacks agency. Cyril lets them know when to come and she lets them know when they can go.
There is another group of women with various levels of authority based on either their wealth or their social status — indeed, the Woodcock empire is built on draping wealthy women with unimaginably beautiful clothing. These women purchase Woodcock’s attention.
The third group is Woodcock’s love interests, including Alma, and there is some dissection of how a woman can move into a different social strata based either on her position or her money or on Woodcock’s interest. There is some fluidity here between groups, and in the clumsiest exposition in the film, a competitor for Woodcock’s attentions dutifully (and annoyingly) attempts to undermine Alma’s claim on Woodcock’s affections.
And, finally, we have his sister, Cyril, who represents the meritocratic & perhaps nepotistic element. It is Cyril who enables, encourages, Reynolds’ single-mindedness and surliness, and one suspects that without her machinations, Reynolds may well have gone the route of Bartleby the Scrivener. Cyril evaluates her brother’s potential companions like the second in command looking out for the alpha dog. Indeed, when Cyril first encounters Alma, there is a prolonged scene where she sniffs her, up close like, and susses out why Alma smells the way she does, and then the Woodcock siblings literally take to sizing her up. It is ridiculous and unsettling and evidently as normal as can be in the land of Woodcock. I’m pretty sure I could make the case that she is playing the role of a protective mother, though I think there is something else going on here. At any rate, Lesley Manville is both beautiful and marvelous in this role.
The bottom line is that you can take the movie at face value and you will find it beautiful and possibly that it has a lot to say about cut-throat competition in human interactions. The dresses are certainly astonishing. I’m no fashionista — I leave that to my colleague — yet I enjoyed the sartorial splendor for the women and for the men. Krieps, Manville, and Day-Lewis are all phenomenal. It is straight up quite the show.
But I would urge you to have an open mind about this being a comedy, because the movie is seriously hilarious. After all, the main character’s name is Reynolds Woodcock, a name with tremendous comedic potential. If you don’t agree, I mean, what is wrong with you? Reynolds Woodcock?!? That’s not an accident. Consider this: this is the same filmmaker that brought us Tom Cruise saying unspeakably filthy things, gave us Boogie Nights and all that entailed, and built an entire movie around Adam Sandler arbitraging coupons off of pudding cups. We also have the sniffing scene, Daniel Day-Lewis ordering breakfast like he was expecting a table full of lumberjacks, Daniel Day-Lewis wearing purple pajamas and a tweed sport coat, and a running joke about how annoying toast butterers can be. And then there is the wedding dress for the princess. If you are watching this as a comedy, you are laughing at this dress. Indeed, L&D laffed out loud throughout, and there was audible cackling from all corners the theater. Overall, I can pretty much guarantee that there are more laugh out loud moments in this than you will find in the film actually called Mr. Woodcock.
I encourage you to check it out because it is beautiful, awesome, hilarious, and may well be Daniel Day-Lewis’ last role. As a P.T. Anderson junkie, this is way over the $5 bar for me. L wasn’t completely sold on it, but I don’t think he had buyer’s remorse over his $5. I can see his point and will admit that I was a bit disappointed in the final half hour and don’t think it was tied together as a masterpiece (like, say, There Will Be Blood), but it was certainly thought provoking — we had a good discussion about the differences between Wes Andersen and P. T. Anderson, the parallels to Mother! and The Beguiled (and here) and a bunch of other stuff. I bet L would even put this over the $6 Thursday bar.