Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Is Just As Wacky And Wild As The Novel It’s Based On.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay), Thomas Pynchon (novel).
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Michael Kenneth Williams, Eric Roberts, Joanna Newsom.
Playing At: Wide.
Some of the best auteurs often make at least one film in their career that’s just too damn weird for moviegoers to grasp. Maverick Robert Altman’s was Brewster McCloud (a favorite of mine). Otto Preminger made Skidoo (also written by McCloud scribe Doran William Cannon), which featured Groucho Marx as God.
These two nutty films eventually found an audience — it just took a long time, is all.
One mind they certainly appealed to was Paul Thomas Anderson’s. His work drips of their influence — but never more so than now, as PTA (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) releases his first truly idiosyncratic movie. It’s called Inherent Vice, it stars Joaquin Phoenix, and it’s based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name.
The source material is about as wacky, convoluted and bizarre as any private eye story I’ve ever read on page (except for Bukowski’s Pulp, which is pure insanity). The film version is a lot tougher to follow, though.
Since Inherent Vice will probably be the most intricate movie you’ll see this year, allow me to give you the skinny in the simplest way to get you ahead of the game before heading to the multiplex, ya dig?
It’s set in California during the heavy counterculture boom in 1970. Sortilège (singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom), a girl who may or may not be real, supplies omniscient narration throughout the film. The protagonist is Doc Sportello (Phoenix), a not-your-typical private eye — there’s no trench coat, fedora and cigarettes for this Dick. Doc is always either barefoot or in sandals. He has a sloppy afro like in cartoon strips. And he lives on a steady diet of cannabis and beer. This is also known as a hippie.
Business is alright, but his world is shaken up when ex-flame Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston, who’s soon to be seen in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs) drops in for Doc’s help. She’s now seeing big-shot real estate millionaire Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, Best of the Best) and she comes to Doc because Wolfmann’s wife and his wife’s boyfriend need her to help them get Wolfmann committed to a mental institute and take all his money. More flighty than a completely shitty person, Shasta wants Doc to investigate and stop it from happening. Still feeling nasta for Shasta, Doc jumps on the case. But then Shasta and Wolfmann both disappear. Knowing he’s probably going to step in more shit than his already dirty feet can handle, Doc sets out to find Shasta and uncover the real truth behind the dirty scheme to get Wolfmann committed to a loony bin.
There are a number of other zany complexities to this noirish plot, of course. And, as a result, Inherent Vice demands multiple viewings. It’s foggy — possibly from all of the weed — and dense. It’s PTA’s least accessible film and not because the storyline’s overbearing, it just requires some mental gymnastics to keep up.
But PTA’s interpretation of Pynchon’s novel still has a lot of merit. The thing about adaptations of books is that the screenwriter and director are going to have to compromise some good material. There’s no way around that. Fortunately, PTA strikes a solid balance here.
Where he loses points is in the fast-spoken, slang- and metaphor-filled dialogue, which is tough enough to decipher on its own let alone while trying to solve this mystery at the same time as Doc is doing it. That’s on purpose; you’re supposed to be just as lost and confused as Doc. This film wants quite clearly for you to discover new threads each time you see it.
As Doc, Joaquin Phoenix is certainly worth watching more than once. He’s hilarious and way cool, relaxed and convivial in every situation. He’s strange and witty, but a well-intended PI — not unlike Elliott Gould’s brilliant turn as Philip Marlowe (previously played by Hollywood titans Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, James Garner and Robert Mitchum) in Altman’s kooky and wild film noir The Long Goodbye, actually.
Those around Doc are equally compelling. In a scene-stealing role, Josh Brolin co-stars as Bigfoot, a detective with a love-hate relationship with Doc. Only a few things bring real happiness to Bigfoot — among them, frozen chocolate bananas and stomping on Doc with his size 12 shoe. But Bigfoot’s as honest as he is crotchety, and watching Phoenix and Brolin — two actors of high caliber — really go at it, bantering back and forth, helps sell the film. So, too, do Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Martin Short (in one groovy scene) and Benicio Del Toro, who also hop along for the ride.
PTA handles these talents ably. He’s long proven his near-unrivaled abilities — he made his masterpiece, Magnolia, at just 29 years old — and knows well how to make a film on his own terms. Furthermore, his anything-goes approach to his universe is why Inherent Vice works, even if it’s a little unhinged in its execution. His signatures are everywhere in this film, keeping it psychedelic throughout: There’s the powerful opening number; the illuminating long takes; the killer bits of dialogue; the entrancing score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood; and, of course, the hypnotic shots from his Academy Award-winning cinematographer and longtime collaborator Robert Elswit.
Ultimately, it’s these elements — the ones that embody the spirit and soul that have made PTA such a thrill to follow — that, for a certain set, will lift Inherent Vice from the more-confusing pieces that make it something of a hard movie to love.
For this crowd, Inherent Vice seems destined to become a cult classic.