I’d kill to live in a universe written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. There, a wizened, 15-year-old soon-to-be-former child actor can fall head over heels for a curiously immature 20-something Jewish girl who still lives with her religiously observant parents and it doesn’t come off as creepy or outlandish. It’s a world that lifts Richard Nixon, the 1970s oil embargo, and Barbra Streisand from ours, but also riffs liberally from Taxi Driver and other movies without ever coming off as pastiche. This is a film carried by two people who’ve basically never acted before, but Anderson somehow knew that they could, and neither hits a false note in over two hours. It’s a star-crossed love story à la Harold and Maude minus the tragedy.
Is it believable that a 15-year-old boy could start a waterbed franchise in the downtime between acting auditions? Then, capitalize on the impending repeal of a state ban on pinball machines by opening the first arcade in his town? Can he pine away for the girl of his dreams through the entire running time of the story and be satisfied in the end with a single innocent kiss? In our jaded, fallen world none of it would ever fly, but Anderson sells these fairy-tale notions and dozens of others. Perhaps he should change his surname to Barnum, though this is the type of snake oil we need these days by the barrelful. R, 133 min.