Monday, December 15, 2014

Inherent Vice (****)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


There are logistical reasons why famed post-modernist writer Thomas Pynchon hasn't had any movies made from his novels until now. His books are all about mood and feeling, wondrous prose surrounding characters that are more like caricature. He's a pure writer, not bending to the stringent rules of narrative, and certainly not writing with a film adaptation in mind. Only Paul Thomas Anderson, our generation's greatest filmmaker, can really speak to have the proper combination of skill and ego - as both a screenwriter and a director - to even attempt it, and how luck for us that he did. Inherent Vice is a drug-fueled mystery without much solution, a stoner noir that both nails every rule of the genre while also defying them. It's romantic view of a fictionalized California at the end of the groovy 1960's is grand, percolating with odd details and visualizations of the arduous death of the Hippie Era. Anderson's incredibly faithful adaptation slims Pynchon's novel to its essentials, but more importantly, it captures the enigmatic feel that Pynchon creates: the thin line between paranoia created from legitimate means and the kind created by smoking too much weed. This is probably the most anticipated meeting of auteur filmmaker and brilliant novelist we've seen since Stanley Kubrick decided to tackle Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and Anderson, always the show-off, proves why he is just the man for the job.

This is Anderson's second consecutive film with Joaquin Phoenix, a chameleonic performer with a troubling public personality who seems perfectly-suited to Anderson's austere, yet chaotic filmmaking style. Phoenix was so good in 2012's The Master as a disturbed drifter that you actually worried for the actor's mental health. In Inherent Vice, he plays Larry 'Doc' Sportello, a shaggy-haired private investigator with gigantic mutton chops and a marijuana habit. The film's action starts when Doc's ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), arrives at his Gordita Beach home to ask him for a favor. She's sleeping with a millionaire land developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and she's worried his mischievous wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her bodybuilding boyfriend, Riggs (Andrew Simpson), are conspiring to kidnap Mickey, send him off to a mental institution and collect his obscenely wealthy estate. Doc is stupefied by Shasta Fay's outrageous accusation, until he notices the true fear in her voice. She really loves this scumbag millionaire, and Doc's own lovesick heart is moved to take up his ex-old lady's case, pro bono. But things get complicated quickly as he begins getting visits from various people from all over the Gordita Beach area with problems they need solved, and they all seem to be connected to Wolfmann and Shasta Fay.

First is Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), a grizzly ex-con and Black Panther who wants to find the whereabouts of an ex-prison friend named Glen Charlock who owes him some money. He'd find Glen himself, but Glen works as a bodyguard for Wolfmann, and all of the bodyguards are all rough, motorcycle-riding members of the Aryan Brotherhood. Then there's Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former dope addict and single mother, who calls Doc about the death of her husband Coy (Owen Wilson), a fellow junkie and saxophone player. Hope wonders if Coy is actually as dead as she thinks, considering a large chunk of money that has been mysteriously placed in her bank account around the time of his mysterious death. How did Hope hear about Doc? Shasta Fey Hepworth. As Doc tries to solve each problem, one-by-one, he only uncovers more questions, and it doesn't help that he is always under the watch of LAPD's self-proclaimed renaissance cop Lt. Det. Christian F. 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). As Doc drifts through the murky waters of these interlocking crimes, he finds that Glen Charlock has been killed, Coy Harlingen actually is alive, and both Mickey and Shasta Fey have both vanished without a trace. Doc gets a tip that their disappearance may have to do with 'The Golden Fang', a mythical boat that may be involved in smuggling heroin into the US and may also have the missing Mickey and Shasta Fey onboard.

In his journey, Doc has frequent run-ins with his lawyer, and maritime specialist, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro); he tries to coax his current girlfriend, and junior DA, Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) into helping him solve some of the more bereaucratic issues of his numerous cases; and he also encounters a sex-addicted, drug-pedaling dentist named Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) who claims that the Golden Fang, is only a syndicate of dentists created as a tax shelter. As the revolving door of characters come in and out of the narrative, we understand why Doc's notes jotted in his logbook seem close to unintelligible. Unlike most "stoner films", Anderson does not take an objective distance from Doc's perpetual substance-addled state, and quite often the film's narrative feels substance-addled as well. This is aided by the director's preferred director of photography, Robert Elswit, who films the material in a washed-out haze, as if we're constantly watching the events through a slight veil of marijuana smoke. Shot on 35mm film, Anderson has been outspoken with his strict commitment to shooting on film, staving off the digital revolution. Film is a luxury that many low budget films simply can't afford, but Anderson and Elswit prove that there's a majesty to film when it's done as exquisitely as it is here. It's a key cog in Anderson's ability to visualize Doc's volatile emotional state. Similar to another recently-released film, Wild, Anderson captures the complexity of human emotion (or, in the case of this film, a particularly unorthodox human's emotion), creating a visual counterpoint to Pynchon's rambling prose.

Much like Pynchon's novel, the various narratives don't so much run together as much as they do smash into one another, and as one issue is settled, four more pop up to take its place. I'm not sure if this is a spoiler or not, but it should be said: those who are fans of resolution or payoff - or any of the other names they have for the thrilling catharsis the audience gets when watching a narrative come comfortably together at the end - should not wait up for one here. Pynchon has always been a master of anti-conclusion, and sticking to his claim of imagining the author for the screen, Anderson follows suit. And this is where it might get frustrating, since the rules of noir are so strict in their dealings with how a narrative should be told, and yet Inherent Vice does not seem beholden to any of that. The film's plot has so many moving parts, that other than Phoenix, Brolin and Waterston, there probably isn't a single character that's on the screen for longer than fifteen minutes. But what do all these characters and all these plot points add up to? Anderson doesn't seem too interested in that question by the film's end, which is riddled with unexpected sincerity and melancholy for a less complicated time. The film's particularly timely distrust of the police force and the government in general helps draw the burning bridge which took America from the peace and love of the 1960's to the post-Manson police state that led to the 1970's. After the Manson murders, hippies went from lovable stoners to possible cult murderers. Inherent Vice pines for a more innocent time.

Anderson's script is a juggling act. Almost everything comes from Pynchon's book, and what is from the book is nearly line-by-line the same. Anderson adds a voiceover narration from Sortil├ęge (Joanna Newsom), who doubles as both Doc's astrologically-inclined friend and the audience's guide through the ever expanding storylines. But while the novel is especially Pynchon-esque in its snarky, insincere tone, Anderson imbues Doc with real, lovelorn gravitas. The performance from Phoenix here is splendidly funny, using a variety of facial gesticulations to translate all of that inner monologue that Pynchon gave his readers. The kind of humor that Phoenix accomplishes here is hard to appreciate; it's free of obvious punchlines that will help guide the audience to where the laughs need to be. The actor seems more comfortable here than in The Master, though, and he's not as sharply-bound by physicality. Doc Sportello is always one step behind, but that probably wouldn't be the case if he weren't always so cool about everything. Vice's ever-growing ensemble showcases a slideshow of brilliant small performances, including Jeannie Berlin in a one-scene killer as the all-knowing Aunt Reet, Jordan Christian Hearn as Doc's bumbling sidekick Denis (pronounced like 'penis') who makes Doc look like a genius by comparison, and Hong Chau as a convincing sales representative at a whorehouse named Chick Planet Message, offering up the Pussy Eater's Special. This doesn't even mention the great supporting work from Witherspoon, Wilson, Del Toro, Scott Thomas, Roberts and Short, who all help paint Anderson's wacky portrait. Brolin, in particular, gives the film's most startlingly funny performance. His scenes with Phoenix are splendid and show the actor's gift for blending comedy and threat. You wouldn't know it by looking at it, but the character of Bigfoot plays perfectly to Brolin's strengths, and Brolin has never been more unrestrained.

Anderson's self-imposed commitment to Pynchon's book here could be seen as misguided as the film meanders seemingly without guidance. To the inattentive, his films always seem to lack the proper steering, but Inherent Vice seems to feel this way intentionally. The director is incredibly faithful, but the novel does allow the Anderson to delve into his own personal indulgences. A hilarious scene involving Brolin and Phoenix at the very end dips into the kind of surrealism that Anderson loves to use to give the audience a wake-up call. That the film could get criticized for being pot-filled and hedonistic is Anderson's own fault, but I don't think he's trying to hide from it either. Only David Fincher and Wes Anderson have as clear of a vision - whenever they make a film, there's no doubt that they're making exactly the film that they want to make - but Paul Thomas Anderson is less reliant on a sensibility than those two, and it's probably the main reason he's never had a hit. This is Anderson's seventh movie, and it will likely be the seventh straight film that performs modestly (to put it nicely) at the box office. His movies aren't inviting and they tend to only take full shape after multiple viewings, but he is one of the few American directors that can be truly called a genius. His beautiful, uncompromising style along with his limitless scope is the most exciting thing that the movies have to offer. Inherent Vice is not his best film and it might not even be in the top half of his best films, and yet it's still amongst the best of the year; a movie so dumbfoundingly unlike anything else available at the movies today. A real gem of writing, filmmaking and acting that shows us the possibilities of a great director.

If I haven't made it clear yet, Vice is also probably Anderson's funniest film, the only one of his that can be called a comedy without any quantifiers. Gone is the melodrama of Magnolia and Boogie Nights, nor is there the seething, building dread of There Will Be Blood or The Master. The latter two films were Anderson at his most ambitious, and their aspirations allowed Anderson to become arguably the most respected director in the country. Inherent Vice is Anderson having a little more fun, not exactly the same kind of pandering for awards and critical adulation. Along with the dedication to Pynchon, the movie is also a love letter to his main filmmaking inspiration, Robert Altman, whose 1973 film The Long Goodbye is this movie's spiritual grandfather. All in all, along with Long Goodbye and the Coen Brothers' 1998 comedic masterpiece The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice creates a kind of unofficial trilogy of stoner noir, where the gum-sandal replaces the gumshoe. Anderson's influences haven't been this apparent in his movies since Magnolia in 1999, which was him at his most young, cocky and uninhibited (it's also my own personal favorite). Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite filmmaker, so as a source of criticism, I'm not very reliable. I'm more willing to forgive him his indulgences because I even find his meanderings highly entertaining. I've watched Inherent Vice twice now, and it's clear to me that he has become as formed a filmmaker as he's likely to be. Any further shifts in his style as a writer and director would be a big surprise indeed. So I understand why some may walk out of Inherent Vice less pleased by the movie's more liberal treatment of its own wonky storytelling technique, but I will probably become more entranced with each sequential viewing.

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