Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s turn of the 70’s LA-set neo-noir ‘Inherent Vice’ is another richly rewarding work from ‘inarguably’ the world’s finest filmmaker. This is Anderson’s seventh feature (and just third since Punch-Drunk Love in 2002), and this is no exception to his attraction to unique projects.
The complicated and vastly-threaded narrative does require strict attention from a viewer, but at the same time it is endlessly rewarding to just relax and luxuriate in the film’s atmospheric natural high, to soak in its riches and not even stress yourself out about putting all of the pieces together. I do believe the pieces are all there somewhere, but I also believe that we aren’t really meant to connect all the dots. That’s what the surely desired repeat viewings are for. I could have done another round of this very entertaining film immediately. Read why after the jump:
I won’t admit to completely grasping all the links between this complex series of mysteries, and remembering how all of the characters relate to one another, but that isn’t what Anderson is interested in. He’s taken us to this post-Manson family California setting when everyone is searching for an identity from within the drug cloud immersing the city.
We meet Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in such a drug haze when he is visited by his ‘ex-old lady’ Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who informs him that her new boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann, a big-shot land developer, is set to be swindled by his wife and her lover. Mickey is fitting to put all of his money into a desert development where people can come to live for free, and some people haven’t taken too kindly to that. Shasta is feverish with sorrow, smelling trouble. When Wolfmann (and Shasta) end up disappearing without a trace, the case becomes more complicated than Doc had envisioned.
At the same time Doc takes on two other cases to tangle things even further. These are on behalf of Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), a member of the Black Guerrilla Family who hires Doc to track down a member of the Aryan Brotherhood who owes Khalil money, and former heroin addict Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), whose husband has gone missing and believed dead. As all of these cases connect in ways not even Doc can fathom and he crosses paths with Nazis, sex workers, an undercover saxophone player and a mysterious alliance known as the Golden Fang, while staying out-of-the-way of antagonistic detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who has recently lost a partner and is set on taking out all his frustrations on the hippie PI operating within his jurisdiction.
Following the film’s opening sequence which sets up the impeccably judged look and mood of this film, and the hapless PI we are going to take this odyssey with, Can’s iconic ‘72 track ‘Vitamin C’ pumps into action. The film’s neon-lit title explodes off the screen, and Anderson proceeds to do whatever he likes, continuing Joanna Newsom’s eloquent narration as the song plays through its entirety. You know from here that this is a film playing by its own set of rules.
Sportello is the perfect character to take us through this stoner odyssey. He’s essentially Shaggy without the Scooby Doo sidekick. He is a goofy, sandaled, mutton-chopped PI stumbling through the dark half-baked, trying to navigate the mess of the multiple interconnected cases that he has agreed to take on. His clients are secretive and unreliable, his scrawled notes are unintelligible and he doesn’t have the support of the LAPD or the FBI. He is seemingly on a fool’s errand, but someone obviously doesn’t want him sniffing around.
Even tackling this challenging material takes guts, which is why Pynchon’s work has never before been attempted, but Pynchon and Anderson are actually a match made in heaven. Very faithful for the most part Inherent Vice is brimming with crazy characters and hilarious gags and Pynchon’s dense prose remains Pynchonian in the best way possible. His story has been transformed into a Big Lebowski–esque madcap adventure with the embedded danger and tone of a hard-boiled detective noir.
Anderson regular Robert Elswit’s cinematography is very interesting indeed. Shot on 35mm film – so there’s that grainy historic-ness within the membrane of the image that Anderson loves so much – there is no hiding the flaws in the features of these characters. While the soundtrack is full of awesome 70’s stoner tunes, I want another go-round just to dissect the sound design and what Johnny Greenwood brought to the film. The Oscar-nominated costumes, and the general atmosphere of the era is in itself a compelling character all of its own.
Phoenix returns to work with Anderson again after their spectacular collaboration on The Master, which resulted in Phoenix’s third Academy Award nomination. Phoenix has been flawless since his short stint away from acting, captured in the documentary I’m Still Here, with The Master, Her, The Immigrant and Inherent Vice. He’s working with the best directors, for sure, but he is amazing here. The supporting cast runs deep with Brolin and newcomer Waterston especially impressing, but Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, Martin Short and Martin Donovan all make the most of their rich characters, who could all have their own film. Their arrival raises questions of where they have been and where they will go, an extraordinary feat given their limited screen time.
There are so many seemingly minor details that have major contextual significance that it will take another look to cluster them together in my mind. Right now they are elusive atoms that have been floating around and occasionally spurring a pleasant memory. There are sequences – Bigfoot eating a chocolate-coated banana, Doc trying to clean his filthy feet with air freshener – that I will never forget. Do they have any bearing on the story? Not really. But they are part of the world of this film. If you are as into that world as much as I was, sitting front-and-centre in the cinema with a cheeky grin on my face, you will still adore this for reasons entirely your own.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer(s): Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon
Runtime: 148 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: March 12, 2015