It’s been exciting and perhaps confounding to some to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s career progress over the years. The director’s present day career vs. his homagistic past reveals a night and day difference. What was once hyper-controlled, keyed-up and kinetic is now low-key, hyper-relaxed and enigmatic. The opaque and mysterious “There Will Be Blood” could arguably mark the A.D. period dividing the director’s past and current self. And while a druggy, psychedelic mystery romp adaptation of Thomas Pynchon might seem to be the perfect opportunity for the filmmaker to reconcile his two halves, it doesn’t. And the film is better for it. The Anderson of “Boogie Nights” appears to have vanished, but he hasn’t died as much as matured and evolved. And his boldly singular voice is alive and well in “Inherent Vice,” a hilarious, but melancholy and intuitive stoner noir that leaves much to contemplate.
To paraphrase Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife, who cameos), Anderson’s approach is everything and anything, and yet is deeply, distinctly Anderson-ian. This is an apt encapsulation of the auteur’s latest jam-packed, free-flowing, instinctual consideration of Pynchon’s satirical and lugubrious exploration of the counterculture generation. And there will be confusion. Trying to hang with the dense plot of “Inherent Vice” is a fool’s errand, its dialogue-driven reveals trickier to navigate than a hippie camper van with bum steering (a score card of who’s who wouldn’t hurt).
Set at the reefer end of the psychedelic sixties, "Inherent Vice" begins along the warm, sunny coastlines of SoCal beaches, but quickly delves into the morally venal shadows of Nixon-era wealth and privilege encroaching upon the beach bum utopia.
Arriving in San Francisco in the late 1960s, George Harrison once famously said he was put off by beatniks; essentially disavowing the peace and love movement. And so by Pynchon/Anderson’s 1970, there’s a fraudulent toxicity in the air; Manson Family crimes have cast a shadow, the grooviness has turned bummer and all but diminished. What’s left is the darker, disappointing notion that it’s all been a scam quickly co-opted by everyone in sight. Even a celebrated tenor sax player—one of them—has sold himself out to the powers that be. What’s left is the dolor of “who are we?” and “where are we heading?”
Murkier than the bottom of a hashish pipe, here’s the short version of the plot: at the behest of an ex-girlfriend (an unforgettably striking Katherine Waterston), a dazed and confused private investigator, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), takes on the case of a disappeared real estate mogul. In the process, the mutton-chopped hippie gumshoe’s ex-old lady goes missing, and he becomes embroiled in a densely layered mystery leading to an even thornier conspiracy with all kinds of sinister tentacles into the greedy capitalistic grid. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a thick narrative that involves a black panther, Aryan Nazis, fruity new age types, a mysterious boat, an enigmatic entity known as “The Golden Fang” and a surfer musician/former hippie (Owen Wilson) who’s turned snitch.
Menacing Sportello like a sinister shadow he cannot shake as he investigates the missing persons is Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen — a civil-rights violating, power-tripping square of a cop fabulously inhabited by a Flintstone-ian flat-topped Josh Brolin, arguably born to play this squared-jaw character.
PTA defies a lot of conventions in his unorthodox movie, which of course rejects traditional three-act structure for something more shambolic. Instead of the filmmaking maxim “show don’t tell,” the mystery mechanics of the movie fire out rapidly in mumbly dialogue that requires the strictest of attention. Narration is also supposed to be 101 no-no for the refined filmmaker, but PTA leverages this technique too. But the expanded feminine narration, taken from a supporting character in the book, Sortilège (a perfectly at ease Joanna Newsom), a Sportello confidante and gal pal, allows PTA to zero in on the longing and sadness of the novel with a dreamy poeticism.
As noirs are wont do to, McGuffins abound. In fact, the entire impenetrable plot of “Inherent Vice” is one big McGuffin. Like Chandler film adaptations “The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye,” etc. the mystery itself, the big reveal and the plot mechanics are beside the point. Instead, what’s paramount is mood, atmosphere and tenor, which shifts from a warm, sun-dappled haze to a one-toke-over-the-line paranoiac fear and California dreamin’ longing for less corrupt, ugly and cynical times.
While “Inherent Vice” has madcap, surreal, and psychedelic qualities, it would do a great disservice to the nuance of the strange film to label it as any one of those things — its style and camera are not chaotic and there’s a method to moments that resemble refer madness. As Pynchon mixes high and low culture, so does Anderson. The Zuckerberg-ian influence might be a tad overstated, but there’s also some hilariously odd things going on in the corners of the frame. Likewise, Cheech and Chong or “The Big Lebowski” are only surface cousins to this picture because Anderson is just so idiosyncratic and unto himself, these comparisons fall very short.
Aesthetically, ‘Vice’ is beautiful. Robert Elswit’s speckled, sun-kissed photography coupled with David Crank’s lived-in production design (no Jack Fisk for this one) is so genuinely authentic it exhibits a dreamy mood of faded memory and innocence lost (not to fetishize celluloid too much, but the way the camera captures the sprinkle of dust in the air is just magnificent). Anderson’s patient rigor and economic blocking also serve the movie very well (establishing shots take a backseat and like “The Master” there’s a big emphasis on medium and close shots).
And then of course, there’s composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead whose superb score is multifaceted and shows the musician’s range, going from jazzy freakbeat to anxious pulsations of an analog electronic unease, to more traditional orchestral work you might hear in an 1940s noir.
While many of the characters can be cartoonish, most of the performances are not; some turns are even grounded and unshowy. Joaquin Phoenix’s forgetful stoner character easily could turn caricature in the wrong hands, but Sportello as drawn by Phoenix is perennially bewildered while still possessing a fine touch.
Part of the delectability of experiencing “Inherent Vice” is seeing where the film will go next. At almost two and a half hours, “Vice’ sprawls through different moods, mysteries and detours, passing many colorful characters by like a wisp (Michael K. Williams as a black power militant is in all of one scene, for example). Loaded with freaks and misfits, Anderson's film has a ridiculously stacked ensemble of talented players that includes highlights such as Martin Short as a wacked out dentist, Benicio del Toro as a maritime lawyer, and the aforementioned Brolin and luminous Waterston (Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Peter McRobbie and Martin Donovan are just a few of the notable co-stars).
A picture that will surely divide, PTA's latest will not be for all audiences and arguably for hardcore cineastes only, but the movie should be a tad less inscrutable than "The Master." As per usual, Anderson doesn't deign to spell anything out other than the plot, which is so complicated it doesn't matter. And in the picture’s second half it's all showing and no telling, which may leave some viewers feeling unmoored. “Inherent Vice” will be baffling to some, and these criticisms won’t be invalid. But the point isn’t the plot or the grammar, it’s the feeling, and the layered, complex tempers of Anderson’s latest creation are legion.
“Inherent Vice” should come with a prescription that instructs the viewer to let the movie wash over them like a cloud of smoke blown into ones face. As Anderson’s picture sprawls out, as its mystery unfolds and as Phoenix’s detective awakens to the bogus trip around him, Anderson’s movie takes on a crisp bittersweet temperature, perhaps best exemplified by the autumnal and wistful Neil Young songs that grace the picture (Can, Sam Cooke, Minnie Riperton and more for those keeping score).
And then there’s the loneliness of the private eye who cannot unsee what he’s uncovered; a generation whose escape has been exploited and even enabled by an establishment more than happy to keep them drugged in a billowing fog. Worse, as neither cop nor crook, the protagonist detective lives in the isolated netherworld removed from blissful civilian ignorance and estranged from the corruption of so-called law enforcement.
A faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s slightly more digestible novel (at least compared to author’s denser works), ultimately, “Inherent Vice” is about the long con job literally and figuratively; the twisty conspiracy that Doc Sportello unravels and the lies his peace and love generation has been sold. Big, wonderfully oddball, sometimes confounding and beautiful, “Inherent Vice” supplies good dosages of stoner giggles. But its doobage is potent and reflects some heavy ideas you’ll need to unpack and meditate on for a long while. [B+]