"It's not groovy to be insane."
The work of Paul Thomas Anderson always invites comparisons to the greatest filmmakers of all time, mainly because much like his contemporaries, he grew up steeped in film and understands the language of film implicitly. The thing that separates him from his contemporaries, however, is his ability to borrow bits and pieces of style from his filmmaking heroes without devolving into outright mimicry. Yes, scenes in Boogie Nights call to mind Goodfellas and Soy Cuba, but the film ultimately feels wholly his own. The filmmaker he has always seemed to have the most in common with stylistically is Robert Altman. Certainly many, myself included, wish he were as prolific as Altman, but his knack for ensemble filmmaking, overlapping dialogue, and a sardonic wit that permeates even the most serious situations makes him a kindred spirit to Altman.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Anderson was drawn to Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice, because it calls to mind Altman's The Long Goodbye, which gave us Raymond Chandler by way of early 70s Southern California. Once again, however, the comparison is meant only to illicit a surface level connection to Anderson's inspiration, as Inherent Vice the film is only as indebted to The Long Goodbye as much as that film was to its source material. The mood, atmosphere, and humor are all there, but with Inherent Vice, Anderson has managed to one-up Altman's telescoping dialogue, dreamlike narrative, and woozy sense of a decade struggling to find an identity in the wake of the decade of love and flower power.
It would be nigh impossible to summarize the plot of the film, other than to say that it centers around Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a stoner private investigator who lives on Gordita Beach and doesn't appear to ever say no to any clients. The film opens with him being paid a visit by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who enlists his help to unravel a mystery involving her new lover, a real estate mogul, who is mixed up with white supremacists, a scheming wife, and various other unsavory characters. The deeper Doc goes into the case, the more things become a convoluted mess, and like all of Pynchon's best work, the joy isn't necessarily in trying to piece it all together, but rather in spending time in the company of some incredibly fascinating characters.
The California of Inherent Vice is one in which the nearly year old sting of the Manson Family murders is still being felt, and one which has rebelled against the hippie movement in general. Doc is a very much a man out of his own time, being constantly and viciously branded a hippie by those who seek to now use the word as an insult. If there's anything the film does exceedingly and consistently well, it's in conveying the sense of what it must have been like to be alive at a time when the world turned against the freewheeling generation of slackers and stoners who sought to change the world through peace. Sadly that generation ended up being burned by people who claimed to have those same values, but in actuality represented their polar opposite.
The film's main figure of authority in the film is a straight-laced cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen who, like Doc, is a man of another time, only even further out of it. Outwardly, Bigfoot projects the serious, "just the facts, ma'am," Dragnet style cop, but he's clearly envious of the way Doc gets to live such a seemingly charmed existence in a perpetual haze of drugs and women. At its core, Inherent Vice is a love story about Doc & Bigfoot, two men who use one another when it suits their needs, but convey an outward sense of hatred and animosity that befits their conflicting ideologies. Much like The Master, Anderson brings us another tale of two men that destiny seems to want to be together were it not for the self-destructive tendencies they exhibit around one another. This is not say that it's an overtly sexual love story—which one could mount an argument in favor of being present in The Master—but rather a deeply platonic love.
The more obvious love story, and the one which gives us some of the film's best scenes, is that between Doc & Shasta. A flashback involving a Ouija board and a rainstorm is perhaps the best single sequence in the film, if only because it perfectly captures the feeling of overwhelming nostalgia for a time that wasn't as rosy as one remembers it to have been. It is a marvelous collusion of an author's intent and a filmmaker's interpretation, and frankly, it's when the film more or less peaks. In fact, Inherent Vice captures the stoner vibe to such a successful extent, it's actually too front loaded with sequences that are ultimately of no consequence to the story. It's almost a shame to admit that some of the best sequences in the film are wholly superfluous, and it's where the film stumbles, if only slightly.
The film has the spirit of the so-called "hangout movies" of directors like Richard Linklater and John Hughes, while simultaneously always feeling as if it's aspiring to greater, more intellectual heights. At times it's a film at war with itself, having a hard time striking a balance between lingering too long in admittedly hugely enjoyable sequences that end up having no effect on the outcome of the mystery. This is more than likely the intention of both Anderson and Pynchon, but it unfortunately makes the film less successful on a basic storytelling level.
Now, this is a minor complaint in the overall scheme of things, mainly because these characters are an absolute delight to be around. Everyone from Phoenix, Brolin, and Waterston, to other hilarious characters like a maritime lawyer played by Benicio Del Toro and a drug dealing dentist played to perfection by Martin Short, are among some of the best characters on screen this year. There's not a false note anywhere in this ensemble, and it's all anchored by an absolutely brilliant lead performance by Phoenix. In retrospect, there was not a scene in the film that he wasn't in, and he sets the tone of the film impeccably, always gauging his performance to perfectly compliment whatever strange breed of character with which he's sharing a given scene. It's sad that there are literally far too many great performances for me to single them all out, but Phoenix and Brolin are both a delight to watch and perfectly inhabit their characters.
Robert Elswit's brilliant celluloid cinematography makes the film feel as if it had been locked in a time capsule in 1970, and will be a beautiful reference point for anyone wondering the difference between film and digital. The score by Jonny Greenwood is spare and effective, but of course it's Anderson's use of music that perfectly compliments the tone of his piece. Songs by Sam Cooke and Minnie Ripperton sit comfortably alongside the music of krautrock bands like Can, and when coupled with terrifically funny dialogue, it's a delight for the ears in every possible way. This is by far Anderson's most overtly comedic film, and it works as a comedy, but it's also got an air of melancholy that prevents it from slipping wholly into the comedy genre.
Inherent Vice is a dense motion picture, with tons of characters, story lines, and an almost non-stop stream of red herrings that is perhaps not as great as the sum of its parts. It's the kind of film that cries out for multiple viewings to sort out all of its conflicting and tangled webs, but also has a wealth of sequences that in retrospect just don't work as well as others, and likely will prove daunting to get through on subsequent viewings. While I wouldn't go so far as to call the film inaccessible, casual fans of Anderson's work will find themselves lost and turned off by the bulk of its meandering. There are parts of this film I absolutely adore and can stand comfortably alongside the best work of Anderson's career, it's just far too uneven for me to recommend without reservation.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]