So Inherent Vice, the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, has moved from its initial limited two-city release to a wide national release, which is just in time for me to turn about my thoughts after having seen it at the Miami Tower Theater’s advanced screening. It heralds itself as a stoner experience, a comedy, and a mystery. I feel all of those things absolutely apply to the source novel the movie lifts itself from, but when it comes to the movie, it’s not unfathomable, but it is being sort of generous.
Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, the movie follows along the days of the Manson family’s trial (only slightly mentioned in the movie but a big damn deal in the book) as LSD Investigations’ own Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a man of his time – that is to say, extreme hippie – is visited upon by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who begins tossing a lump of work onto him as she stresses the possibility of her current boyfriend real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) being the target of a disappearance. Upon investigating further, Doc finds himself in the middle of a large tangle of affairs, assassinations, drug empires, government conspiracies, and broken homes – it’s a miracle the movie’s plot is still able to be comprehended when you actually can pay attention (although the sound edit isn’t really your friend there, the volume on their voices are extremely low).
Part of why I was taking so long to put together my thoughts is because I found myself having to divide them between two personalities of mine: the guy who based his observations of the movie on the original novel by Thomas Pynchon and the one who got himself adjusted to the movie itself.
So let’s begin with the guy who read the book and give the other guy his voice later:
I’m not necessarily a personal fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, save for two pictures (maybe two and a half), and, having read a couple of Pynchon books in college, I have no qualms with pointing out Inherent Vice as my least favorite of his literature (which isn’t to say I didn’t still have some fun reading it). I find Anderson’s writing and shooting style within his hey-day of the late 90s to be extremely self-indulgent beyond the necessity of the shooting itself. His two later works prior to Inherent Vice, being There Will Be Blood and The Master are the ones I do like and he seems to be a lot more controlled and focused within those films. The shots are tighter, not as willing to deviate or wander around. They say what they need to and then move right on.
Inherent Vice seems his most restrained film yet, with each scene overall being made up of long-takes and tight shots, and that actually sort of almost makes me miss the frivolous manner of shot composition and arrangement with overcompensating attention to detail that made up Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Because that would have perfect complimented the writing style of Pynchon – tangential overflows of in-jokes for each moment out of every possible manner of writing: informative, character thought, descriptive, you name it. But with Leslie Jones’ sparse and sleepy editing, it feels like being sat and down and being told we’re not allowed to play. Not a great feeling.
In addition to certain moments of the film feeling anti-climactic compared to their showing in the book (we are mostly told not shown), a major theme of the book is completely abandoned cinematically – the changing of the times. We never feel the times moving on as the book swayed us through. While the book is less about the mystery itself but how it changes Doc the same way the end of the 60s is changing California, the movie strictly rejects that aspect and undercuts it very harshly by the last scene. Which, again, doesn’t damn the movie, but it does disappoint me.
But moving on to the actual aspects of the film irrespective of the source material itself, my first reaction upon watching a movie that is supposed to be a comedy is that Paul Thomas Anderson really has no sense of comedy. At least, that’s what he has presented to me in the film. The cast themselves give off very funny performances of course (I’ll get more into them later) but they are doing all of the heavy lifting to make the film funny rather than the film itself.
Which isn’t to say Anderson is entirely lazy with this movie, he just ends up dedicating everything he possibly could to creating a fog-shrouded smokescreened picture of paranoia and unsettlement for Doc’s shifting eyes as he digs deeper and deeper into this dilemma, aided by the very shadowy but rarely underlit work of Robert Elswit (certainly not his best work of the same year he worked on Nightcrawler) and Jonny Greenwood providing his most obvious score yet for Anderson, juggling the balances between his awareness of the era and allowing for a jazzy mix between fearfulness and drug-addled groove. It’s very clear Anderson and co. just had something more on their mind when making this movie, but that doesn’t excuse the moments in the film where the cast actually can’t do anything and there’s one of many giant gaps in the film’s tone where it doesn’t feel like a comedy, a noir, or pretty much anything. In the entire movie, I can only recall maybe one shot that actually feels funny from the filmmaking itself (again, not being able to describe too specifically without going into spoilers but it involves Doc simply sitting down and the items that are surrounding him in broad daylight next to a window).
And of course, while Anderson did his best to streamline the tale within his script, the mystery and different-yet-connected cases will of course come off as convoluted and too dense to be easily engaged by unless you have some supersonic hearing like whoever editing the sound. It leaves an audience a lot more alienated and makes the running time feel exactly like the 2 hours and 28 minutes that it is.
So what does pretty much save the film? It’s all the cast, most of them limited to no more than three appearances, but each one of them tuned into their stereotypical persona to 11 enough for it to make a broad and recognizable landscape of hippie-Nixon 70s (Martin Short and Reese Witherspoon do not bring anything new to their usual repertoire, but play their usual screen personalities so so well here where it fits). Phoenix in the lead is just absolutely ready to play the wise fool in this atmospheric noir and brings his modern charm to the film (also, did he always have that cleft palate? Because I noticed it in The Master and now it returns here). He would almost be the funniest thing on screen, if not for Josh Brolin as “Renaissance Detective” Lt. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Brolin gives himself in to the inner life of disgruntled Bjornsen (perplexingly, the script gives a lot more material to the characterization of Bjornsen than the protagonist, Doc, himself) and elicits a lot of pathos even within the cruelty that his character perpetrates constantly to his frenemy of Doc. Yet Brolin also never ever stops being the funniest fucking thing on screen, every single time he is there. His jokes both make me spit my soda and reveal that there’s more to Bjornsen than just a flatfoot asshole. Easily, my favorite moment is a single reaction shot – that gets interrupted but not for too long – where we witness him goad on his wife’s interruption of his call to Doc, followed by immediate embarrassment from details she reveals, and ending on absolute defeat from his spouse. In one scene, Bigfoot’s humanity becomes the laughingstock of everyone in the audience, but not for Doc, who turns to defend him briefly.
Anyway, if there is one actor in the ensemble that makes me a little exhausted to have to see again, it is Waterston, but that’s not necessarily because she is terrible. She is indeed transfixing enough and hypnotic, but every moment she appears kind of starts to bring the movie’s pacing to a screeching halt just to maybe tease on the status of her relationship to Doc and that’s just not interesting to me anymore once it becomes very clear in the film what the ending point will be. And it is very fucking clear very fucking early on. And it is very different from the book and what the themes insist upon. But that’s as far as I’ll explain it.
I didn’t find myself hating the film thanks to the cast being ready to drag me along for their ride for a while. But because of most of the rest of the film dedicated to being a dreary smokescreen and nothing more to add or even heighten the cast’s work, I don’t find myself with anymore reason to revisit Inherent Vice anytime soon. It’s probably the least interesting film Anderson has produced since Punch-Drunk Love – at least Magnolia and Boogie Nights are eye-catchingly extravagant in Anderson’s lack of inhibition, but in this movie – where kaleidoscopic framing is not just insisted upon, but a necessity – Anderson’s restraint becomes just a vice that bores rather than threatens. And that’s fine, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I’ve just been able to move on a lot quicker than poor Doc himself.