Thomas Pynchon is a writer that ranks among such greats as James Joyce and Alan Moore when it comes to the decidedly literary quality of his writing. Despite spinning tales that intrigue and inspire, Pynchon’s work, like Joyce’s and Moore’s, has long been considered, “unfilmmable.” Filled with a staggering amount of references and a distinct, stream-of-consciousness narrative voice, Pynchon’s novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day are complex and demanding (eschew his books if you’re looking for a beach read). It may be no surprise to the avid filmgoer that Paul Thomas Anderson, director of The Master, There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, etc. chose to tackle this assumption head on in his new film, based upon Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice.
Anderson has always been an unconventional filmmaker, one that’s not afraid to go against expectations and deliver decidedly weird stories that take place outside of the usual three act structure (I mean, Magnolia is a three hour ensemble piece about the human condition). In channeling Pynchon, Inherent Vice is much the same and even weirder than you might expect. It focuses on the perpetually high Private Eye, Larry “Doc” Sportello who is prompted by the return of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay, to investigate the disappearance of her lover, a real estate mogul in 1970s Los Angeles. It sounds simple enough, but when Doc gets caught up in the convoluted politics that govern drug trade in the city, as well as the disappearance of a local saxophonist/government informant, things become a little more complicated.
Even if I were to tell you the end of the film, the beauty of Inherent Vice is that it’s nearly impossible to spoil. Like the old slogan, it’s about the journey, not the destination, Inherent Vice uses its run time to show us a strange, drug-addled world, filled with memorable characters that represent both the free loving, unfettered spirit of the 60s as well as the straight-laced, administrational menace that sought to shape that contingent into something more conventional and “inoffensive” as America moved into a new decade. It’s an interesting story, and one with so many layers and allusions that multiple viewings are definitely recommended.
As with P.T. Anderson’s last film, The Master, Joaquin Phoenix stars. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, Phoenix is one of the most talented actors working today. He made The Master’s Freddie Quell one of the most mesmerizing characters in recent memory, and here he does the same with Doc Sportello, a character on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. He imbues Doc with a listless, bumbling likeability. Despite his seemingly perpetual intoxication, Doc is intelligent, yet reserved, amiable, yet suspicious. Most importantly, despite his easy-going nature, he was deeply hurt by the end of his relationship with Shasta Fay and the scars of that are apparent throughout the story; the way in which P.T. Anderson explores this is very affecting despite the seeming inanity of some of what occurs on screen, all of which becomes relevant by the end of the film. Though filled with strong, off-beat performances, Phoenix’s Doc carries the film, functioning as an equally confused avatar for the audience as they too struggle to keep up with the dense, labyrinthine nature of the plot. A simply masterful performance. It’s in years like this that I wish the Best Actor categories had expanded as much as the Best Picture category has, because Phoenix is definitely deserving of a nod (Jake Gyllenhaal and David Oyelowo too, but that’s another story).
Doc is unquestionably the focus of the film, but Phoenix is supported by a number of familiar faces, filling out an ensemble of off-beat and memorable characters. Josh Brolin is a standout as the stoic and overtly masculine detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who’s described as having “a twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violation.’” Much of the film is focused upon Doc and Bigfoot’s relationship as “frenemies.” Bigfoot dislikes Doc for everything he represents, yet rails at the boundaries presented by his own cookie-cutter American life that seems to have been ripped straight out of the 50s. Brolin is predictably impressive, displaying a deftness for comedy that I hope he continues to explore in the future. The other notable character is Shasta Fay, played by Katherine Waterston (Michael Clayton, Robot & Frank). Waterston’s Shasta is the perfect foil for Doc, a dreamy, inscrutable femme fatale in the guise of 70s woman. She is at once alluring and frustrating, transparent and unashamed in her manipulation of Doc, mostly because Doc is a willing and knowing participant. Waterston conveys this complexity with ease, making a character that could have easily been one note, incredibly intriguing. There’s a siren-like quality to the relationship between Shasta and Doc and the chemistry between Waterston and Phoenix is palpable.
Beyond Brolin and Waterston, the cast is sprawling, including such talents as: Joanna Newsom playing Doc’s conscience, Sortilege (I told you this movie was weird), Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, and more. It is a testament to Anderson’s writing that the dialogue for each character is so distinct and each seemingly innocuous conversation is loaded with hints and allusions to the larger mystery at hand. Anderson’s direction has always been distinct and challenging and Inherent Vice is no different. Whereas The Master evoked the sensation of looking at a moving photograph, Inherent Vice feels more like a Super 8 film, given the breadth and clarity of modern camera technology. Aided by Cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Blood, The Town, Nightcrawler), Anderson creates a stunning, alternative reality southern California in the form of the fictitious Gordita Beach. Dialogue is filmed up close and every landscape shot wouldn’t look out of place on an old postcard. It’s some beautiful stuff and something that definitely pays to be seen on a big screen (though in the exact opposite way of something like, say, Interstellar). Lastly, Anderson’s longtime collaborator (and member of Radiohead) Johnny Greenwood returns to score the film, filling it with music that alternates between embodying a dreamy, drug trip and drug-fueled detective work. Other than the score, the soundtrack is masterfully collected, with Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” being the highlight; any lover of music should definitely pick it up.
I loved Inherent Vice. It’s a weird film, floating free from classic narrative structure and nearly completely driven by its layered dialogue, neon-drenched in a trippy sort of alternate reality that could only exist in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Watch it once, then watch it again. Though a word of warning: If you didn’t like The Master, There Will Be Blood, or Anderson’s other films, you probably won’t like this one. Which is unfortunate, but hey, that’s like your opinion, man.