Written by Coby Dominus.
By this point, there’s no doubt that each new Paul Thomas Anderson film is an unparalleled cinematic event. Make no mistake, that fervor stems in large part from his mastery of his craft, but perhaps equally responsible, is that he’s one of the few American masters from whom you don’t know quite what to expect. To make a comparison to another contemporary great, David Fincher has for basically his entire career, made thrillers. There’s nobody out there who makes thrillers like Fincher (he truly is the closest thing we have to a Hitchcock), but Benjamin Button and The Social Network aside, he’s a man whose work fits entirely under one genre, and as such, when going to see a new Fincher film, you more or less know in broad strokes what you’re going to get. Paul Thomas Anderson on the other hand, is all over the place, starting out with sprawling ensemble pieces, moving to romantic comedies, and then to grave dramas that plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul. All of them great, all of them unique. Well make no mistake, his latest, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Inherent Vice more than continues that trend. It’s an amazing piece of work, a hazy stoner-noir unlike anything else in his filmography, or for that matter, anybody else’s.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a pot smoking private eye who one night is called upon for help by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (a superb Katherine Waterson). Shasta, currently in the midst of an affair with real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), enlists Doc to help dismantle a scheme hatched by Wolfmann’s wife and her lover that would end with Wolfmann in the loony bin. Doc agrees, but shortly after, Mickey Wolfmann disappears. Things spiral out from there, with Doc picking up a handful of other cases along the way, all of which seem to intersect in one way or another, until the narrative is positively labyrinthine, and by the end, near impossible to really trace. Yet, the convoluted nature in entirely of apiece, for under each double cross and revelation, Inherent Vice is really a film about the widespread national confusion that hung over this country, likely in California most of all. This is a film that has a number of sight gags about a character’s oral fixation with chocolate covered bananas, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film without anything worthwhile to say.
Perhaps most surprising after the one-two punch of There Will be Blood and The Master is the film’s tone. Much has been made of the film’s humor, in the least that after Anderson’s previous two films, it has some. As showcased in the film’s trailer, there are jokes, and there are several of them, running the gamut from quick witted quips peppered throughout the dialogue to slapstick, all of which is impeccably executed by a deep and brilliant cast. Yet, while Anderson’s mentions of comedic influences such as Top Secret! and Police Squad are by no means out of place, to say that the film’s tone is one of complete zaniness is to perhaps miss the entire point. Every pratfall, every retort is seeped in a soft but unmistakable melancholy, one that permeates through each of Robert Elswit’s gorgeously shot frames, and one that’s audible in every note of Johnny Greenwood’s career best absurdly vibrant score. In the 1960’s California was torn in political conflict between the liberal and conservative sects, but Inherent Vice doesn’t take place at the height of this war. It takes place in its denouement – the year is 1970, the liberals have lost, and at no point, does Anderson let you forget that.
As the narrative quickly turns into a psychedelic blur, it falls to the characters and their relationships to carry the film, and to nobody in particular’s surprise, the performers are more than happy to oblige. By the end it feels as if the number of characters is in the triple digits, but it’s a testament of Anderson’s script that each of them feels established – some by a lone scene, some with a single line, and some with a hair piece, or a twinkle in their eye. Phoenix is stupendous in the lead role, proving himself a comic natural, taking an eccentric character who in the wrong hands could easily turn in to a cartoon, and making Doc hilarious, zonked out of his mind but never less than unmistakably human. Inherent Vice marks his second collaboration in a row with Anderson, and it can only be hoped that there are several more to come. Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as Bigfoot, a Los Angeles cop with a deep hatred for hippies, and a haircut sharp enough to slice a loaf of bread. Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon – the list goes on, but let it be said that each and every one of them does great work. Special attention must be given to Katherine Waterson though, an actress primarily sight unseen before this picture, but one who quickly supplants herself as a force of nature, stealing just about every scene she’s in, if not the film as a whole. Her name might not be familiar now, but after this, it surely will be soon.
Like a four way cross between The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski, Nashville and The Long Goodbye mixed with a handful of hallucinogens for good measure, Inherent Vice is a film that upon domestic release, should immediately enter both stoner and film noir cannon. It feels destined to become a cult classic, sure to inspire as many half-baked conversations about its various conspiracies at 3:00 A.M. as it is to inspire lengthy discussions on Paul Thomas Anderson’s continued foray into formalism. It’s two and a half hours of slow moving bliss, a kaleidoscopic gum shoe odyssey through a bygone era that confounds and amazes in equal measure. It’s a film that’s sure to be divisive, but for those willing to give in to its rhythm, it will offer an unparalleled cinematic high. So buy a ticket, and take a hit.
5 out of 5 Nerdskulls
Inherent Vice played on October 4th as the centerpiece of this year’s New York Film Festival. It opens in limited release on December 12th, and expands wide on January 9th.
Check out the trailer below:
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