Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Inherent Vice

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Hazier than an enormous cloud of pot smoke, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" is one of the year's funniest, most mysterious and flat-out unusual films. It just so happens to be great, which shouldn't surprise you, considering that the filmmaker - one of the very best of his generation - was previously responsible for "The Master," "There Will Be Blood," "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights." However, "Vice" is also Anderson's least accessible film and what you get out of it will likely depend on what you're willing to put into it.

The picture is the first ever to be adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel and those familiar with the enigmatic writer's works will likely know what to expect from this film. The ingredients for any Pynchon story typically include a healthy dose of paranoia, obscure pop cultural references, characters with outlandish names (for example, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd and Petunia Leeway), labyrinthine plotting and offbeat humor relative to the time in which the story is set.

In this case, it's 1970 in a fictional Los Angeles corner known as Gordita Beach, where one Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is living in a pot-induced haze and facing the countercultural comedown in the wake of the Tate-Labianca murders (referenced twice here) and Altamont.

One day, a former hippie and ex flame named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam, in a breakout role) shows up and asks for Doc's help. Shasta's in trouble and she spins a wild story about an eccentric millionaire (Eric Roberts) whose wife is attempting to have him placed in a mental institution in order to get at his money. Shasta, who has traded in her Country Joe and the Fish T-shirts for a more conservative getup, is the lover of the millionaire, who has made his money by displacing minority communities for real estate purposes. This, of course, recalls "Chinatown," another near unsolvable mystery involving L.A. land use.

But as Doc looks into the case, the mystery spirals out of control and my advice to those planning on seeing the film would be not to get hung up on figuring out the picture's plot, but rather letting the story and its peculiar vibe just wash over you.

Doc's investigating brings him into contact with a number of odd characters, including a Black Panther type played by Michael K. Williams (Omar from "The Wire"), a former heroin addict (Jena Malone), an assistant DA (Reese Witherspoon), a surf sax player turned informant for the right (Owen Wilson), a dangerous deal maker (Martin Donovan), a maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), a drug addled dentist (Martin Short) and a tough guy cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who acts as Doc's foil, but also sort of his unofficial partner. Also, one of Doc's pals, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), doubles as the film's narrator, giving voice to some of Doc's thoughts and guiding us through the purposely confusing story.

One of the film's more humorous - but also increasingly mysterious - threads is when Doc stumbles upon an entity known as The Golden Fang, which acts as a stand-in for all things dark and nefarious. At first, Doc is told that the Fang is a schooner, but later finds evidence that it's a heroin drug ring and, then later, a tax shelter for dentists. At one point, Phoenix sits in front of a dry erase board, attempting to link all the clues involving the various characters and how they might be involved with The Golden Fang, but don't expect to find any clarification.

One of the delights of "Inherent Vice" is to watch Anderson's filmmaking talents at work. As usual, he's picked fantastic music (Neil Young, Can, Minnie Riperton and others) to accompany his visuals and his camerawork is never anything less than inspired. But, this is also a film in which any given shot can include multiple ideas, meanings and storytelling devices.

For example, there's a lovely flashback in which Doc and Shasta run out into the rain to the tune of Young's "Journey Into the Past" to score some drugs, but end up spending the day getting soaked together. Later, a postcard from Shasta recalls that idyllic day, but also acts as a clue, of sorts. Then, when Doc shows up to the spot where he and Shasta spent much of that day, the structure that has since been erected there provides some thematic weight to the film's chronicling of the death of the counterculture.

Similarly, a final scene during which Doc and Bigfoot - a gruff, anti-hippie cop who believes drugs to be the root of all evil - attempt to reconcile their differences, at first, might just seem to be an exhibit of odd behavior. But think of how the scene plays to Doc's disillusionment with the way the wind is blowing and consider how Bigfoot himself might be downcast due to circumstances involving the LAPD and the sequence becomes rather poignant. This point in American history gives neither character much to celebrate, although they have yet to experience the national downfall of the Nixon years.

Anderson is typically terrific with actors and "Vice" is no exception. Phoenix plays Doc partly as Jeff Bridges' The Dude and somewhat similarly to Elliott Gould's Marlowe in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" and it's an inspired performance. And Brolin is frequently hilarious as Bigfoot, exhibiting a comedic side previously unseen from the actor. All of the supporting players are equally good, although I'd like to single out Short's delirious scenes as the deranged dentist Blatnoyd, Waterston as the hippie femme fatale who really pulls out all the stops during a scene late in the film which she mostly performs nude and Wilson, who brings much pathos to his role as the sax player who has been forced into cooperating with the LAPD and a group known as Vigilant California.

For a comedy, "Inherent Vice" is very long (nearly two and a half hours) and features nearly as much dramatic material as it does hilarity. That being said, it is very funny and includes several sequences sure to provoke snorts and loud chuckles, including a heroin trade-off, Short's reaction to being pulled over by a cop and, my personal favorite, Brolin's eating a frozen banana as Phoenix looks on.

As I mentioned before, "Vice" is another great movie on Anderson's resume, but it's one that takes a little more work than is typically required by an audience. But those willing to give themselves over to its far-out story and conspiratorial vibe will be duly rewarded.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I can't wait to see this film. You just sold me on it. :-)