Inherent Vice (2015)
It’s always an exciting time when one of your favourite film makers new addition to their pantheon hits cinema screens. Some true cinema nerdage can begin in earnest, the fun game of considering the new piece within the context of the preceding work, identifying how the auteurs themes and style has grown and evolved (well, hopefully), of how technique breeds with content. Such is the case with Inherent Vice, the eagerly new awaited film Californian chronicler Paul Thomas Anderson, who this time around has managed a first – the inaugural film adaption of legendary author Thomas Pynchon. Once the initial trailer dropped and the composite cast was announced some early rumors started wafting through the marketing breeze, with Anderson himself stating that he took his inspiration not from the likes of Altman or Huston which had informed his earlier work, but from the unlikely sources of the Zucker brothers and Cheech & Chong comedies which set some of the signposts of this rambling and occasionally incoherent film. Just to retain my press credentials I am contractually obliged to reference both The Long Goodbye and the Coens beloved Big Lebowski as the films with long shadows that hang heavy over this picture, in form if not necessarily intent. So lets scythe our way through that haze of Californian curling bong smoke and see where we are man……
After the dense, serious character studies of The Master and There Will Be Blood some are situating Vice as something of a palette cleanser, a spritely irrelevant comedy orientated picture which the trailer suggests in the films first confusing sleight of hand. This is not a broad, knock about comedy, sure there are a few chuckles to be had but this is a much more mellow trip than the marketing suggests. Tetrahydrocannabinol powered private detective Doc Sportello (a hirsute Joaquin Phoenix) is enlisted by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to investigate a kidnapping plot against her new lover, the property magnate Mickey Wolfman. Narrated with irrelevant aplomb by Doc’s friend Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) as some sort of slightly weary Greek chorus the plot is largely irrelevant so I won’t elaborate, suffice to say this is an ensemble piece stuffed with a psychedelic cloud plane of characters, a mélange of competing interests and purposes involving black power militants, clandestine FBI property deals, jazz drummer fifth columnists, dentist co-operatives and Asian narcotic syndicates. Through this fog of disappearances, corporate maleficence and government plots stride a stupendous cast, including a buzz-cut Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson who was obviously born to be in this picture, Reese Witherspoon reprising her Tracy Flick persona three decades before her time, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Michael K. Williams and Martin Short – groovy.
Back with his usual ingenious cinematographer Robert Elswit and with Johnny Greenwood back on scoring duties the talent seems to be in the correct places, alongside a period playlist of artists including Neil Young and Can which should get some music aficionados nodding along with Greenwood’s Debussy influenced score. The direction is quiet and understated with no flashy long tracks or expensive period film establishing pans, Inherent Vice is very much a piece of characters speaking in rooms or on sidewalks which Anderson stages as simple two-shots before dollying incrementally in as Pynchon’s prose spills from the characters mouths. One of the undeniable triumphs of the film is bringing Katherine Waterson to a wider attention, in just a handful of scenes she steals the picture from robust competition in the form of Phoenix, Brolin or del Toro, she’s a slightly forlorn figure of quiet, resigned desperation, a metaphoric icon of the era. Where has she been until now? It’s another piece of evidence of just how great Anderson is with his actors and how performance nest themselves in the nucleus of his pictures, but they need the dramatic structure around them to really excel beyond stand-alone moments, of glimpses of higher glories. Slightly related but just how sad is that Philip Seymour Hoffman is no longer with us, and today is exactly a year to the day of his passing. Fuck.
With a giggle the film flips the bird at audience members who demand their media to be wrapped in a neat little bow, ambiguity and tone taking center stage with little regard for clockwork plot mechanics or three-act thematic resolutions. No doubt this antagonize many and whilst I enjoy sitting back and letting a film wash over me without concentrating on the plot connections, a stew of experiences whose nourishment can be divined after proper digestion I cannot lie, and I drifted in and out of the experience with increasing alienation. Like its dazed and confused heir to Chandler and Bogart Inherent Vice is almost too relaxed and ramshackle, the parade of colorful individuals and institutions more exasperating than energetic, as just as a thread started to build some traction and momentum the power fizzles out in a slightly frustrating fashion. No doubt this is at least partially intentional, that the source material adopts a similar louche approach to dramatic drive, and in true noir fashion it is pleasing to see disparate plot strands incrementally tangle and twist into each other, but after two and a half hours of ample screen time Doc’s odyssey is a rather languid affair, and even the prismatic scope of personalities fail like the hippy dream to fulfil their full potential.
Despite my reservations about the film one of the incidental pleasures of a major filmmaker giving us a new text to ponder is the associated essays and career analysis that is generated throughout the media landscape, here is a craft orientated video essay and here is some interview goodness to erect some context for Inherent Vice. I’ve posted this before but this two-hour WTF interview is simply essential (if only for the ‘nevertheless’ anecdote from the Boogie Nights shoot at 53:27 which is pure, unadulterated brilliance), for the uninitiated here is his kinda unofficial fan site which pulls together all the news, reviews and anecdata on the man and his movies, and finally here is reputedly the best review of the movie according to my esteemed international colleagues but beware as spoilers abound. The ICA are screening a panoply of Andersons movies which is great news, although I probably won’t be attending for various reasons*. Slightly off the beaten track if you like the sound of Californian period noir then Night Moves and Cutters Way are two underappreciated west-coast sun-blissed detective enabled stories, also preoccupied with those altruistic dreams of the sixties gone sour, a melancholy hangover from Manson which despite its flaccid flaws Inherent Vice continues to ponder.
* I will sound like a jerk but this is this – their screening facilities are understandly miniscule and I’m really not tempted to throw fifteen quid at a Blu-Ray screening of Magnolia or whatever, so my unanswered query sent to the enquiries address querying which Anderson films are being presented in 35mmm as opposed to digital has pulled me away. It’s no big deal but here we are…