Dec 12, 2014
A mess, but P.T. Anderson gets brownie points for trying to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel into a movie. And this is a very ambitious, literary film, with plenty of voiceover narration provided by dulcet toned Joanna Newsom, and the expansive feeling of curling up with a loopy book that never seems to end.
I can understand why Anderson may think that this comic noir shaggy dog story set in 1970 Los Angeles is worth telling now. If anything sums up the spirit of the movie, is the picture above. We think we don't, but we live in a dark place. As the rest of his movies (with the exception of Punch Drunk Love), Inherent Vice takes a look at yet another side of the prismatic underside of American culture.
Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, munching the scenery), some sort of doctor stoner who moonlights as a P.I, gets dragged like Alice in Wonderland into a spiral of bizarre goings on under the placid LA skies, coming in contact with all kinds of quirky characters from all walks of life. There are tiny roles for the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short (who seems to have landed from another circus altogether), Owen Wilson, and the much missed (by me) Eric Roberts, who has two seconds of screen time and kills. We barely get to spend any time with them before Doc is hurled into some other crazy situation. I don't think it is worth trying to unravel the plot. The idea is what is below the surface, what fresh and vast conspiracies really run the show.
Doc reminded me of Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, he is that laid back and unhurried, although he may be a little less serene. Phoenix is one of those great hams who can do no wrong. Even when he is reaching he is interesting to watch, and he can be funny. Josh Brolin plays his foil and opposite, Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, (bless Pynchon and his wacky names) a square headed policeman with none of the lazy savoir faire of Doc. He is hilarious. Their scenes together are the best thing in the movie. Unfortunately, Anderson doesn't have the wacky comic touch of the Coens and the humor feels labored.
At two hours and a half, Inherent Vice is hard to sit through. The scenes take forever, the wild goose chases don't seem to gather momentum, let alone go anywhere coherent, and though I completely get that this may be on purpose, to give us the density of time as experienced by a stoner, it drags.
Robert Elswit's washed out cinematography and sometimes deliberately ugly framing captures the era but bores the eye. And I found Jonny Greenwood's score underwhelming, though the pop songs on the soundtrack are great.
I have a nagging feeling that perhaps a second viewing may bring more pleasures, but Inherent Vice is, like The Master, an intellectual exercise that fails to live up to its ambitious promise. The Master is gorgeous, sharper, and more jarring. This one is just exhausting.
However, as a body of work, Anderson's films gain in stature because there is a very coherent thematic preoccupation running through them. He likes to find the cobwebs and the dirt under the American entrepreneurial soul. Hard Eight, his impressive and modest debut, takes place around gamblers, Boogie Nights is about a community of porn stars trying to make it, Magnolia is a dark, enigmatic piece about family, There Will Be Blood, about the drive for profit, The Master is about the American obsession with perfecting (and controlling) the individual and our cottage industry of charlatans, and Inherent Vice is about the rivers of rot that course through our enterprising American veins. Anderson looks at the fringes, and under the polished surfaces of our increasingly frayed collective delusion of democracy, freedom and high standards of living. He is not buying any of it and that makes him a very interesting, if somewhat exasperating artist.