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Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson literally does not give a shit.

If I had to sum up my thoughts on Inherent Vice in just one sentence, that's probably the best encapsulation. My feelings on his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's pretty great 2009 novel continue to shift in the wind and every day seems to unveil some kind of new detail that I didn't realize existed before. 

When first exiting the local cinemaplex, one of Atlanta's many, from our Thursday night screening of this long awaited film, my first thought was: "Thomas Pynchon just doesn't work on screen". Immediate comparisons were drawn to Don DeLillo and the rather abortive attempt of a film that David Cronenberg strived towards with Cosmopolis, an adaptation that was far too slavish for the stream of consciousness style narrative to resonate in a visual fashion. Inherent Vice, the book, isn't quite so obtuse, but it still uses its language as a blunt instrument, as most Pynchon books do. For the uninitiated, its the kind of novel you have to re-read lines of, and sometimes flip back to remind yourself of what happened just a few chapters before. There are tons of characters to keep track of, and little details and developments that pile on more developments, with so few of them actually "mattering" to the central narrative. 

That's kind of the point really, Inherent Vice isn't the kind of noir-mystery that's supposed to make sense in the end. Its more of novel as a statement about the way the world was and the way it's about to be, centered on the coming of Nixon's America. "Doc" Sportello is a protagonist in the Raymond Chandler mode, but surrounded in the trappings of the era. As shaggy-dogged as you can get, and a man that's fighting against the turning of time, Doc's story is very much of the end of the days of "free-love", but it's also fairly universal in its scope. We're never prepared for cultural change, but that goes doubly so for those who are entrenched deeply into the thought process that dominated before. Be it fashion, politics, film taste, music, how we view ourselves, all of these things are ever-evolving and moving forward like a big machine. But in Inherent Vice, there is indeed such a big machine moving in the background, making sure this seismic shift comes to pass. It's another conspiracy narrative from the man who is the master of them.

So what does Paul Thomas Anderson get out of all this?

To understand that, you have peak back a bit at his history. While there are many influences that have shaped him into arguably one of the, if not the, most exciting filmmakers working; it all really boils down to Robert Altman. Anderson was a protege of the ensemble film-making master for years, and a number of his casting choices (Julianne Moore, Phillip Baker Hall, Henry Gibson) and overall ethos in the early part of his career (Magnolia specifically) are owed to the long-shadow Altman cast. There's also a good deal of Robert Downey Sr. in the mix too, especially his satirist masterpiece Putney Swope, and that influence would arguably grow stronger in the current "era" of Anderson's oeuvre. 

But Altman's work is the obvious touchstone, with his own take on Chandler in The Long Goodbye, being one of the films that Anderson cited as having significant impact on him. There's an easy argument to make, though an assumed one, that Anderson's affection for Altman's hazy, Elliot Gould-led noir might very well have drawn him to Pynchon's material. It certainly didn't hurt. On the other hand, his continually growing inner-rebel, pretty clearly on display in the anti-establishment There Will Be Blood and the probing character study of a charlatan in The Master allows that Downey Sr. side of him to rear its head as well, which also lends itself to Pynchon's paranoid world. However he got there, "that's okay with me".

Taken on its own, Inherent Vice the film and Doc, come across as the next evolution of Humphrey Bogart's Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep: the private eye drawn into an increasingly maddening world with a mystery that begins to make even less sense as it unfolds in front of him. There's a strong line you can draw from that Howard Hawks film to The Long Goodbye to The Big Lebowski to Anderson's offering, with the private investigator becoming more and more his own spectacle each time. Joaquin Phoenix's muttonchopped, dirty feet hero is at first glance miles and miles away from the charismatic and almost romantic Bogart, but the trappings of the archetype shine through, particularly when Doc goes undercover for the first time for our eyes and the film starts to spin out of control. As the next moment of a well-worn genre and maybe even a storytelling tradition, there's much to admire here.

Anderson does a little surgery to some of the more extraneous strands of Pynchon's narrative, and actually wears it down to its essential parts. Doc is investigating a potential scam to be committed against his ex-girlfriend's rich lover at her behest, which drags him into a world of heavy drug trafficking and institutional corruption. Sure, there's a murder here or there, but Anderson's script never really strays from this path except when it deals with Doc's unresolved feelings for Shasta (the ex). Though despite any other diversions disappearing, that still presents a massive cast, with plot developments that are almost as numerous. If you aren't fairly attentive, you'll get pretty lost quite fast. Anderson presents information in almost the exact same way Pynchon did: long passages of dialogue. That simply isn't going to work for everyone, especially for the viewer who squirms at long takes. On the other hand, this effort gives Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston and the rest of the cast some nice moments to chew on, not relying on the edit to produce characterization and audience expectation.

When I try to define Anderson's work here, the easiest thing I can do is compare it to his previous film The Master, which I realize is incredibly lazy criticism but also sets a recognizable bellwether. Inherent Vice is both more accessible and less accessible than The Master. Its far funnier and less gloomy than Anderson's 2012 effort, but its also paced at a breakneck speed. The individual moments, especially in the first half, feel less inscrutable than the early goings of The Master. But once Inherent Vice really buys into the reality of its far-fetched fantasy, it begins to feel even more alien than something Wes Anderson or Monty Python might offer. The emotional core is stronger here, and that may be the difference maker. Anderson never forgets to center the story on Doc's love for Shasta, though he somewhat does it at the peril of losing sight of Pynchon's overall message. Though strangely, if Inherent Vice has an issue, its that Anderson was too faithful to Pynchon, but less-so his actual plotting than the delivery of said plot. It's a beautiful vision of a distored Los Angeles he's crafted here, but the talking heads even tested my patience in small, but telling moments.

In truth, I'm still processing my feelings about Inherent Vice. Phoenix is fabulous, both hilarious and affecting at the same time. Brolin may be even better and everyone surrounding them adds an important piece to the overall tapestry. Anderson's effective use of Johnny Greenwood's third haunting score for one of his films, alternating with a sparing period specific soundtrack, sets the mood of a time slowly slipping out of reach. And with Robert Elswit returning as DP, reuniting Anderson with his long-time behind the camera partner, there's surely a great think-piece to be made of Elswit's differing takes on LA, between this film and Nightcrawler.

At this point, I find Inherent Vice an easy film to admire, but a hard film to love, though a second viewing much like with The Master may nudge me towards the latter. The bottom line is, the young filmmaker that made Boogie Nights and Magnolia has seen the sun set on that moment in his career and the more individualized approach that has marked his films since There Will Be Blood is the Anderson we're getting from now on. That kind of artistic growth is, of course, to be applauded, but there's a good chance he'll never quite have the audience he once did because of it.

But that's okay, because like I said, it's pretty clear Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't give a shit, and that's okay with me. Though, I may have to resolve holding this part of his career at the same distance he holds me. I'm sure Doc would be good with that.

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