Inherent Vice (2014)
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson seems of a different time; a man who has more in common with his heroes Robert Altman and Robert Downey Sr. than any of his contemporaries. Cribbing from those two masters, Anderson’s wistful, hilarious and sprawling Boogie Nights was a sympathetic love letter to 1970’s porn and the makeshift families that the lovable losers of that world formed. Set against the backdrop of the film-focused 70’s rolling into the more disposable video-era of the 80’s, it was nostalgic for an analog time and stood watch as youthful idealism curdled into the darkness of dirty deeds done for coke and cash.
Setting back the clock a decade to 1970 but keeping the L.A. setting, Inherent Vice features a similarly large and well-heeled cast, and despite numerous surface pleasures it nests its deeper meanings and themes behind more obfuscation and circular logic than ever (making it a natural successor to the increasingly obtuse but artful films of Anderson’s like There Will Be Blood and The Master). It seems like an apt approach for the first adaptation of famously reclusive and experimental author Thomas Pynchon. Possessed of a stoner spirit, Inherent Vice is another admirable evolution in the career of one of the best American filmmakers working today. And if that doesn’t lure you in, then how about Martin Short as a drug-crazed pervert dentist (Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd) who’s getting high on his own supply? Or any number of wild, indelible characters with crazy names played by great actors that litter the screen in an embarrassment of riches? This 2-and-a-half hour beast is seriously unforgettable.
Joaquin Phoenix continues his enviable hot streak (following The Master, Her and The Immigrant) as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a shaggy-haired, perma-stoned P.I. who hides his intelligence behind a haze of pot smoke and quizzical grimaces. Working out of a doctor’s office (complete with Maya Rudolph as his secretary dressed as a candy-striping nurse – neither element is explained), Doc sees a steady stream of down-on-their luck clients like the newly paroled Tariq (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the distraught single mother Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone). A search for Hope’s missing saxophonist husband (a subdued Owen Wilson as Coy Harlingen, continuing the string of amusing names) leads Doc down a rabbit hole of intrigue and mystery, in a labyrinthine plot that is mostly secondary to the feel of the movie and the deeper truths it scratches at. There’s a real estate conspiracy, a trail of dead bodies, a wealthy land developer (Michael Z. Wolfmann played by Eric Roberts) gone missing, and an ominous criminal empire called the “Golden Fang”. Maybe, just maybe, it all has something to do with the disappearance of Doc’s ex-old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston in a breakout performance), placing Doc smack dab in the middle of the whole shebang.
There’s much, much more to the lengthy and winding plot, full of noir-ish elements like femme fatales, double-crosses, and numerous colourful characters. Phoenix brings a mumbling charm to Doc, a wrong-place, wrong-time kind of guy that falls ass first into some deep shit. There’s some real comic timing on display here, and it’s quite different from the generally intense dudes he usually portrays. Benicio Del Toro, an old hat at these types of roles after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is on the same wavelength as Doc’s lawyer, the alliteratively named Sauncho Smilex, Esq. Waterston is transfixing as Shasta Fay, a beach bunny sexpot in cutoff shorts that brings trouble wherever she goes. She’s playing a type here – the one that got away and you can’t forget, and she sells it well. There’s an iconic scene of her seducing Doc that slyly alludes to the Manson family, changing gender roles (anticipating the women’s liberation movement), and the general feeling of unease as the country tumbled head first into the 70’s that encapsulates much well still being elusive.
Stealing the whole show is Josh Brolin as the flat-topped cop “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. A straight-laced relic of the early 60’s who stands in clear contrast to free love and drug use, he’s alternately Doc’s nemesis and begrudging semi-partner. Brolin is explosive and hilarious, portraying a violent character with a sensitive soul, the kind of guy who goes to therapy for all the horrors he sees on the job and trains his toddler to pour him scotch. Bigfoot and Doc’s relationship is in many the central one of the film, with Bigfoot representing an earlier, sterner time and Doc being more dialled into present day 1970. Both men are left behind in ways as the world around them changes. Pot use slips into heroin abuse, the free love movement changes into burnt out malaise, and with Nixon in power the U.S. further entrenches itself into the conflict in Vietnam. The world outlook is generally darkening, and the film meets that theme by presenting a feeling of unease that’s alternately hallucinogenic and hypnotic.
That’s probably the biggest barrier to entry – things aren’t overly explained or put into context, but rather characters and incidents just occur one after another and you’re left to piece it together. It can be bewildering and confusing, but there’s an exhilarating sense of discovery if you’re willing to match Anderson’s tempo and go along for the ride. Helping matters immensely is the gorgeous cinematography. Shot on aged 70mm film to emulate a movie made in the 70’s, Inherent Vice seems authentically era-appropriate and stands out greatly in a digital age. Anderson has doubled down on his commit to and fetishization of a bygone time, but the homage feels sincere and organic.
There’s so much going on and so many characters that I haven’t even mentioned Reese Witherspoon’s uptight D.A. Penny Kimball or singer Joanna Newsom (in her film debut) as Sortilège, Doc’s assistant/conscience that may or may not be a figment of his imagination. It’s a packed film, dense and winding and full of incident and details that will likely only reveal themselves upon repeat viewings. Anderson has made no concessions to modern movie audiences in his adaptation of Pychon’s novel, and that alone should be heralded in a movie landscape that’s increasingly homogenized. The upside is that Inherent Vice deserves to be lauded, as it’s a fun, lyrical, and pleasingly idiosyncratic movie that is thoroughly exciting for not just its depiction of the winds of change sweeping through these character’s lives, but for its anachronistic reminder of what films can be and where they can go. A hangout movie of the highest pedigree, the Gordita Beach of Inherent Vice is a place well worth visiting.