Why Phantom Thread Is the Best Comedy of 2017
“Marriage would make me deceitful and I don’t ever want that.”
Marketing campaigns for new films used to be simple. Actors appeared on talk shows, movie posters dotted hallways leading to movie theaters. Maybe the star was profiled in GQ or Variety. In the modern era of just trying to get people to care about anything (so much so that a character like Thor is probably more marketable than a celebrity like Matt Damon), movie marketing has been transformed. Top Gun: Maverick owes at least some of its success to Miles Teller memes on TikTok, even if those don’t quite outweigh the Tom Cruise wattage yet. Everything Everywhere All at Once became a sleeper hit on the indie circuit largely because of early buzz online from critics like David Chen and David Ehrlich. And a Marvel movie isn’t promoted without the director speaking on their inspirations for the film.
Peyton Reed happily labeled Ant-Man as a heist movie. Fans have celebrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a “political thriller” because the Russo Brothers alluded to Three Days of the Condor once. (That’s without even mentioning they pulled fucking 2 Days in the Valley for an Avengers: Infinity War comp.) Eternals was a coagulation of The Revenant, manga, History Channel, Final Fantasy, and Terrence Malick, according to director Chloé Zhao. When they inevitably arrive at the hallmarks/trappings (depending on how you view the MCU) of their genre, it often leaves fans disappointed that they didn’t actually see Dick Madden and Gemma Chan wrestle a bear.
With that in mind, I can understand why you might pause at the title of this article. Maybe you think me calling Phantom Thread a comedy (or even “funny” to begin with) is akin to Scott Derrickson labeling Doctor Strange “psychedelic” or Kevin Feige comparing Captain Marvel to The Conversation. That’s probably fair. As far as I can remember and research, Paul Thomas Anderson never described Phantom Thread as a comedy while playing Catchphrase with Jimmy Fallon, Questlove, and Alison Brie. But not only do I consider Phantom Thread funny, I do believe that its character-based humor, constantly fluctuating power dynamics between the film’s leads, and clever, thoughtful writing from Anderson position Phantom Thread as the best comedy of 2017 and one of the best romantic comedies in recent memory.
First, Phantom Thread’s status as a comedy must be defended. There are plenty of outwardly dramatic moments and shading to the film. Daniel Day-Lewis considers himself to be a very dramatic thespian, of course. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture), winning for Mark Bridges’ team’s Costume Design. (So, even the self-serious board of filmmakers treated Phantom Thread reverently.) But the movie is buoyed by its comedic nature.
The initial conceit of Phantom Thread zeroes in on a time-honored trope of the cinematic scene. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a celebrated, revered dress maker in England. Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) is a younger, homelier, Luxembourgish waitress who has more in common with Laura Linney in Love Actually than with the regal British fashion scene. Cyril Woodcock (Lesley Manville) is Reynolds’ sister, business manager, and the only one who can get through to the many peculiarities and particularities of Reynolds, a high-functioning perfectionist. These attributes of Reynolds paint him as being similar to David Fincher or Chidi from The Good Place. The film’s engine thrusts when Cyril slips from being the only one who can handle Reynolds to being his second option, behind Alma, Reynolds’ muse, lover, and caretaker. She’s as likely to stuff him in a proverbial locker as she is to nurse him back to health with maternal doting. Day-Lewis’ dynamic portrayal proves him worthy of both. Krieps’ lived-in characterization of Alma explain why she might simultaneously feel distaste and awe towards him.
The exacting, aging, male “savant” dabbling in a dalliance with the looser, younger, female “muse” is a common trope that innately arrives rife with comedic potential. We saw it in Annie Hall (heinous real-world implications of Woody Allen’s behavior notwithstanding), Shakespeare in Love, Beauty and the Beast, High Fidelity. It’s been around so long we’ve been able to see deconstructions and inversions of the trope in films like Long Shot, Enchanted, and, of course, Phantom Thread.
Phantom Thread, for one, has a number of laugh-out-loud moments that come about from the natural progressions of the characters themselves, as well as the central romance between Reynolds and Alma. On their first date, Reynolds reveals a lock of his dead mother’s hair is on his person. Repeatedly, he expresses his distaste for the word, “chic.” A doctor asks Reynolds how he’s feeling and Reynolds, ever the one holding disdain for those he considers to be below him (through no fault of their own, of course) replies, “Did I tell you to fuck off?” The simmering tension between neither Reynolds nor Alma fully being the kind of romantic partner the other person would design them to be in a fantasy bubbles over towards the end of the film’s second act. When Reynolds wants a dinner to transpire exactly how he envisions it and Alma instead needles him to explain what her role is in his life, he mistakes her anxieties for a lack of interest in the asparagus she cooked. He succumbs and laments, “Are you a special agent sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?”
Maybe it’s easier to imagine this as a comedy if it’s Seth Rogen and Jenny Slate exchanging dialogue and barbs like these. Or maybe if it was Maya Rudolph and her real-world husband, Paul Thomas Anderson himself. After all, Anderson has stated that the romantic dynamic between him and Rudolph when he became ill one day was the initial spark of inspiration behind Phantom Thread. The fastidious filmmaker likes things to be “just so,” as Elaine Benes would say. When he was forced to be vulnerable and let Rudolph take control, he found himself enthralled in the shifting dynamic. So, too, does Reynolds when Alma’s mushroom omelettes poison him just enough to make him dependent on her and not enough to kill him. It establishes their pairing as romantic, but also as a cute, kinky tale of a man who always feels the incessant need to be in control that he gets off on it when he’s not. He just wants to be dominated; it’s fun.
Phantom Thread is fun, but not outwardly farcical. It was never designed to hit the box office highs of another Anderson muse, Adam Sandler, for example. But for the right kind of cinephile, the humor is perfectly suited to the film and to being the funniest of Anderson’s filmography and of the 2017 movie slate because it is subtle. The kind of movie that becomes funnier when it’s considered more deeply or when you discuss it with a friend and they recontextualize a quote that you didn’t even consider to be silly because of the pulsating, stringy Jonny Greenwood score overlaying the scenes. Moments like the aforementioned show that Anderson sees Phantom Thread as a comedy of errors — and the subsequent testing of those errors. How far can Alma push Reynolds before he retreats and seeks a lover who will be more submissive and attuned to his desires? How much did he actually realize that’s the opposite of what he wants? How far can he push her before she finally throws her hands up and decides to find an easier love? Phantom Thread certainly fits the binary formula of a “studio rom-com” (single then meet then fall in love then fight then break up then reunite then happily ever after). It’s a rom-com whether you consider it to be more funny or more sweet. It’s just that the audience is as invested in what’s best for Reynolds, Alma, and — yes — Cyril as they are in what’s best for those watching the film and rooting for love. The difference is this love is intimate and driven by Reynolds’ early adoption of BDSM culture.
While this character-focused romance (rather than plugging and playing stars like Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey) sets Phantom Thread apart, the purest interests of Paul Thomas Anderson also help to elevate the movie and its humor, as intricately woven into the DNA of the film as a pattern of stitches into fabric. The film builds to the comedic realization that Reynolds will only be satisfied and lackadaisical in his love when he’s facing poison-laden death. But it also demonstrates that Anderson had more on his mind than two characters finding the perfect compromise for their relationship when he collaborated on the screenplay with Day-Lewis. He wanted to interrogate control, sacrifice, perfectionism, minimalism, and how unruly it can be to try to connect with the unpredictable psyche of another person and why that makes love so daunting in the first place. These thematic areas of intrigue allow Phantom Thread to support itself beyond the laughs, but to also use humor to help reach that next level. The extremities of the personalities portrayed in the film border on satire, but they lead to moments of comedic exasperation that are as satisfying as similar pots-bubbling-over in scenes like the garden party of Crazy Stupid Love, the church of The Night Before, and the entire third act of Clue. Phantom Thread is a refined uproarious that would be as entertaining to see with a rom-com-like-minded crowd that would be enthralled by 50 First Dates or When Harry Met Sally. It’s similar to the popular theories that Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love deconstructs either the Sandler comedy formula or the Superman origin story. Except Phantom Thread is content to be as funny as many of the rom-coms that came before it, from Bringing Up Baby to The Big Sick. Coincidentally, both titles could be tongue-in-cheek alternative names for Phantom Thread’s closing moments.
Finally, to be the best comedy of 2017, one must consider the other contenders from five years ago. There is Lady Bird, which may be the closest in tone to Phantom Thread. Greta Gerwig’s debut feature is brilliant (and probably my favorite of 2017, with Phantom Thread in second), but also balanced between comedy and drama, nominated for Best Picture, and a certified deconstruction of a popular, occasionally-overlooked genre (coming-of-age). Yet, Lady Bird ends on a much more bittersweet note than the rom-com high of Phantom Thread’s final tie. Similarly, Thor: Ragnarok finds itself inextricably devoted to the de facto action sequence that must conclude an MCU effort. (Though, the comedic highs of Ragnarok may outpace Phantom Thread, admittedly.)
The other 2017 comedy contenders probably include The Disaster Artist, Brigsby Bear, The House, The Lego Batman Movie, and Logan Lucky. 2017 was right around the time that studio comedies began to be either shuttled to streaming (Win It All, The Polka King) or too high-concept and starry to be funny (Baywatch). (For clarity purposes, The Death of Stalin is a 2018 release for us Americans.) The Disaster Artist and Brigsby Bear both become more interested in melancholy than humor as the films go on (the inverse of Phantom Thread, which is nearly downright silly by its conclusion). The House is underrated, but far from the best efforts of both Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler. To me, Logan Lucky’s humor is owed to Daniel Craig and Daniel Craig alone. And while The Lego Batman Movie’s “just be funny” conceit [à la 30 Rock and Arrested Development at a time when other, more popular sitcoms were at their strongest when they dabbled in heartfelt moments, too (The Office, Scrubs)] is largely successful, it left me feeling the way I did when I saw Australia and thought of Baz Luhrmann’s maximalist filmmaking style: if anything, they could’ve gone harder.
Your comedic tastes will vary for all the films listed above. For me, Phantom Thread is the only one that, as mentioned above, has gotten funnier the more I’ve thought about it and is rooted in highly entertaining and hilarious character-based humor. The film reveals itself more and more to viewers who care to grapple and unfold it to a greater extent. There are no outlandishly funny concepts in Phantom Thread and no characters exist to just be joke machines. (Think of Britta and Troy on Community. Do they get the best lines or do their characters naturally result in solid humor?) Instead, Phantom Thread is the purest creation of a genuine romance revealing itself to its most intimate audience members. In the same way that lovers become funnier and find each other to be the funniest the longer they date and the more they learn about each other, so too does Phantom Thread reveal itself to be 2017’s best comedy the more time we spend with Reynolds and Alma.