Film Review: Inherent Vice

As you might expect from a team-up of Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon, 'Inherent Vice' is confounding, challenging and consistently unique.
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Although Paul Thomas Anderson's career has taken him in a very different direction from fellow ’90s indie-cinema god Quentin Tarantino, both of their films continue to reflect their formative years as L.A. video-store rats, voraciously consuming movies of all shapes, sizes and genres. Just as it's impossible to discuss recent Tarantino joints like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained without pointing to the older films that directly influenced them (most notably Sergio Leone's mid-’60s run of spaghetti westerns), one has to take the work of John Huston and Stanley Kubrick into account when discussing Anderson's back-to-back masterworks, There Will Be Blood and The Master, in the same way that Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were regularly invoked when describing his 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights.

Expect Altman's name to be bandied about quite a bit in regards to Inherent Vice, Anderson's adaptation of the 2009 pot-laced slice of L.A. noir by cult novelist Thomas Pynchon. While the movie is a largely faithful translation of the source material, it's just as much—if not more so—a call-and-response riff on the late director's shaggy detective story, The Long Goodbye, which transported Raymond Chandler's square-jawed ’50s City of Angels private eye Philip Marlowe two decades forward into the hedonistic ’70s, the same decade that Vice lovingly recreates. Altman's movie positioned Marlowe as a Rip Van Winkle figure, a man so far removed from his own time he's unable to make any sense of the world around him, let alone the mystery he's been tasked to solve.

Vice's lead gumshoe, Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance that’s as loose and shambling as his Oscar-nominated turn in The Master was tightly wound), is equally befuddled for much of the film's runtime, but not because he's Bob Dylan's proverbial Mr. Jones, who knows something is happening here, but doesn't know what it is. Instead, Doc is a pot-carrying member of Southern California's hippie citizenry who, if anything, seems destined to be the last guy at the party rather than the first to leave. And perhaps that's the real reason that he's out of sorts…apart from his copious consumption of joints, of course. Somewhere within that addled brain he realizes that the good times are winding down. Inherent Vice is very specifically set in 1970, the halfway point between the Summer of Love (hippiedom's apex) and Richard Nixon's re-election (its last gasps), and Doc's world is slowly but surely coming undone.

The breakdown starts with his own break-up; in happier times, Doc shacked up with fledgling starlet Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), but she's moved on to bigger fish, serving as arm candy for L.A. real-estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). At the top of the film, Shasta drops by her and Doc's old digs to enlist his help in preventing Mickey's conniving wife from pulling off a scheme that would land her new boyfriend in a straitjacket. But then Shasta herself goes missing and Doc pursues her through the hills and valleys of Southern California, encountering new mysteries and oddball eccentrics at every turn. Mysteries like the saxophone player (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be dead, the coke-snorting dentist (Martin Short) who may or may not be heading up a criminal outfit known as the Golden Fang and the flat-top police officer (Josh Brolin) who may or may not be using Doc as a pawn in an elaborate revenge scheme.

Circling back to the Anderson/Tarantino connection, it's been striking to observe how as Tarantino continues to embrace his gift for gab, Anderson has moved in the opposite direction, investing as much—if not more—importance in what's unspoken. Where Boogie Nights and Magnolia are suffused in dialogue, movies like There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love make bold, beautiful use of silence. The first hour of Vice, in contrast, is almost wall-to-wall talk and the sheer amount of information and exposition thrown at the audience in the movie's early stretches can border on mind-numbing. In interviews, the filmmaker has said that he doesn't expect viewers to keep up with the exact details of the labyrinthine noir plot, citing Howard Hawks' famously convoluted adaptation of The Big Sleep as a direct influence on the way Vice's narrative haphazardly unfolds.

That's the kind of cleverly executed homage you'd expect from Anderson, but it doesn't help moviegoers who just want to be able to maintain a firm grasp on storytelling basics like character names and motivations. A movie like The Master comes equipped with its own set of challenges, but it's built on a relatively straightforward foundation of a battle of wills between two very different men. The method to Vice's madness becomes clearer when it leaps those daunting first-act hurdles, but it's easy—and understandable—to picture some viewers giving up in frustration before then.

At the same time, the movie's top-heavy beginning is very much keeping in tone with Pynchon's book, which similarly piles on fresh mysteries and new characters at a rapid clip. And while that can be just as frustrating on the page, the novelist benefits from being able to describe this world and its inhabitants from a distance, using his authorial voice to slip in sly commentary and pointed digs at everyone up to and including Doc himself. (The film tries to replicate Pynchon's outsider perspective through intermittent voiceover narration delivered by Joanna Newsom's Sortilège—a wise, knowing pal of Doc's who loves him despite his obvious shortcomings—but it's a device that never really clicks.)

Once he's over that initial exposition hump, Anderson is able to commit to an experiential point-of-view that puts us inside Doc's head, allowing us to witness him become untethered from reality as the film becomes untethered from linear storytelling. Throughout the book, there's a more-than-subtle suggestion that this entire kooky escapade is just one of Doc's marijuana-laced fever dreams and the movie goes even further in that direction, to the point where one could conceivably argue that nothing we're seeing—the Golden Fang, Brolin's cop and even Shasta herself—is real. Doc isn't trying to find her; he's chasing his memory of her through the corridors of his mind, trying to solve the mystery of why she left him and how much more he stands to lose. Despite the business of the plot, Anderson's interpretation of Inherent Vice may just boil down to the simplest of scenarios: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy pines for girl.

Even if that's not precisely what Anderson is up to—like all of the director's movies, this one demands multiple viewings before settling on any one "definitive" explanation—the second half of Vice finds the director fully in his element, choreographing a heady, atmospheric mood piece that’s stylish without being suffocating for the audience or the actors. Brolin in particular is a joy to watch here, departing from his recent track record of glum, poker-faced performances for a live-wire turn that hits as many unexpected, unpredictable notes as the movie itself. (Phoenix is quite good as well, although his natural intensity doesn't always jibe with some of the more broadly comic moments. It's fascinating to contemplate what Robert Downey, Jr., who was attached to the movie in early stages, would have done with the role.) Inherent Vice is destined to be a divisive movie, even amongst Anderson's most ardent admirers. But c'mon—the last thing you'd expect or want from an Anderson/Pynchon collaboration was for it to be ordinary.

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