Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Thomas Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson
Run time: 148 minutes
What, or, just how much is to be said about Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature, Inherent Vice? For starters, it’s a cinematic fusion comprised of two mad scientists of their respective art forms–one is Thomas Pynchon, the esoteric 21st century novelist whose work revels in a purposefully cryptic song and dance of linguistic style–the other, one of the finest American filmmaking eccentrics of the aforementioned century. These things are easily stated, and they are obvious, but what does Anderson’s experience mean? Does Inherent Vice carouse under the guise of pretense while wallowing in languidness and stubborn self-indulgence? Is it goofy, ill-conceived aloofness or a layered, self-aware masterstroke that elicits hard-earned hyperbolic labels such as “unlike anything that’s ever been made”?
Staying true to the essence of Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice is, nearly to its detriment, too many things, but, no matter–it is simultaneously aware and vehemently unashamed of that fact. It’s a neo-noir stoner romp that’s deliberately scatter-brained: The film is just as high as its anti-hero, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a P.I. in fictional Gordita Beach, California–a setting that recalls a nostalgic locale from the films of Anderson’s past–most notably the San Fernando Valley of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. Doc is firmly embedded in the vibrant milieu of the conclusion to 1960’s hippie Utopianism, and his “ex old lady” has just appeared on the doorstep of his beachfront digs.
Shasta Faye Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) is in need of a favor, and what that favor entails becomes the center of Inherent Vice’s intentionally complex, strung-out sense of gravity. Faye’s new boyfriend–land developer Mickey Wolfmann–has found himself on the business end of a strange conspiracy that’s symbolic of something that underpins Inherent Vice’s slapstick facade: And so things begin to transpire, both through the fog of pot smoke and the sun-kissed glow of far-western California, and just as these free spirits begin to yearn for the good ol’ days of carefree spontaneity, so looms the day of an encroaching sociopolitical counterculture–a shift in American ideals embodied by the hopelessly square bully cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
Bigfoot and Doc share a strange empathy for one another, and some of Inherent Vice’s funniest sequences come from their time on screen together, and as its labyrinthine plot begins to (sort of) unravel, the focal point remains fixed on these two figures: They carry a symbolic importance that’s unique to both the history of Los Angeles and America altogether–and so the plot swerves, veers and careens around them as it remains nothing more than a vehicle for truly Anderson-esque style. Owen Wilson is the center of a tangential narrative about a rock star double agent. Penny (Reese Witherspoon)–an assistant D.A. girlfriend of Doc–enjoys smoking pot and drifting in and out of his sex life. And there’s something called “The Golden Fang,” a mysterious, seemingly all-encompassing entity that may or may not be the catalyst behind most of Doc’s misfortune, but, nevermind.
Inherent Vice is perpetually in flux: It’s hilarious, sweet, dark and strangely unnerving. It is in every sense a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it’s unlike anything he’s made. It is, above all, a film of textures; it’s a dreamlike fashioning of a specific state of mind–a crafting of a distinct time and place, and Anderson’s stylistic preferences become the film’s beautifully bewildering lifeblood. Inherent Vice is a wonderfully befuddled yet dazzling anachronism–not since the neo-noir of the 1970’s has the feeling of an era been so richly evoked on film. In fact, the film’s evocation of such a uniquely American epoch transforms Inherent Vice entirely, making it something of an experience rather than a centerpiece for casual observation.
For his seventh and most peculiar picture to date, Anderson’s movie-making sagacity is reserved and unabashedly lackadaisical. It seeps through the film instead of flowing directly from it, and this is precisely how Inherent Vice accrues such a slowly evolving, irrefutably engrossing design. Gone are the days of flashy visual bravura that served as touchstones for the auteur’s early work. Instead, Inherent Vice recalls the visual composition of its equally awe-inspiring predecessor, The Master. Anderson’s frame is tightly focused; he often regards his characters in close-up, and the director’s proclivity for the static shots that permeated the sprawling sequences in There Will Be Blood are never far from arm’s length.
Many have compared the feel of Inherent Vice to that of the Coen’s cult classic The Big Lebowski, but, unlike that film, Anderson’s is more compassionate and remains imbued with a deeper sense of humility. A labyrinthine slapstick it certainly is, but the once heir apparent to modern American cinema takes time to pay special attention to observing his character’s humanity, however flawed it might be. Inherent Vice dwells on its own particular brand of nostalgia by reflecting on a shift–or, rift–in American ideals, doing so in a way that tugs mysteriously at our heartstrings and unremittingly on our funny bone.
Midway through the film, Inherent Vice’s plot is put on hold–as it so often is–allowing for it to luxuriate in the atmosphere of its suave existence. Anderson’s camera pans frantically to Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) as he spouts, “It’s not groovy to be insane!” Perhaps that’s true, but, there’s no mistaking that Inherent Vice is both groovy and insane. It is–more than any film I can recall–unlike anything I’ve seen.