Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, one of the greatest living filmmakers of all time, and is in the same league of the some greats like Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Altman. So when P.T. Anderson does something far more perplexing and alien like "The Master", it creates a frustrating response. Now his latest film, "Inherent Vice", is a little less opaque as before, but every bit as murky on a narrative level.
Based on Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, "Inherent Vice" is already building some strong supporters from notable film critics. I have now revisited the film, and even read the book just last year, and I can say the material isn't quite successful, or even designed on a cinematic level. The plotting is dense by design, and while the novel felt very engrossing, the film at times feels sluggish and meandering. Still the film offers many unique and memorable moments and unforgettable characters that the frustrating narrative is forgiving. The film overall is better to endure in small moments, rather than trying to puzzle it together as a whole.
The film begins with a hippie, pot-smoking private detective named Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who gets a random visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She informs doc about the current guy she is seeing, Mickey Wolfman, a real estate mogul, who suddenly disappears. She lures him into an investigation that brings him other tips and phone calls from others telling him about other situations that could, or could not be related. His journey leads him down a bizarre worm hole involving massage parlors, white supremacists, mental institutions, drug cartels, and something called The Golden Fang, which is many things including a ship, a dentist office, an Indonesian drug cartel, a criminal organization that all has ties to Mickey Wolfman.
He meets a jazz musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who was supposed to have disappeared after his wife Hope (Jena Malone) hires him to find her husbands whereabouts, and now seems to be making a living as an informant for the F.B.I., who shows up at various gatherings with hippies, and he protests Nixon rallies. Eventually Coy becomes the key to this whole story, or at least he's the key to holding everything together.
Reese Witherspoon plays Doc's current girlfriend, a more conservative and less hipie-iwsh D.A. assistant. Josh Brolin is a riot as a LAPD detective named Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornson. A struggling actor, now police detective who's a real pain to Doc, but eventually they form an odd partnership as they try to get closer and closer to Wolfman's disappearance. The pairing of Doc and Bigfoot is something that echoes P.T. Anderson's previous films like "The Master", and "There Will Be Blood".
Doc smokes a lot of pot throughout the film. Anderson tries to use stoner humor that reflects "The Big Lebowski", though it's not quite as clever, or funny. The film's plot is probably fragmented and murky by design, it's as if you are trying to solve a case from the perspective of a stoner. The setting of the film is 1970, and the film brings to be minds other films that were made in the time frame like Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" (1973), and "Night Moves" (1975). These films also explore LA hippies and drugs, and are also mysterious, but unlike those great films "Inherent Vice" isn't as unforgettable,or as mysterious, and those offer classics off more thought-provoking solutions.
The point of the book is to explore a time period like the counter-culture, which was a movement based around social justice, peace, and protesting the corporate establishment. In the book, and film the movement is on it's stand as it the Nixon-Reagan era of California is triumphing for special interests. Corruption, corporatism, materialism, greed, and self-interest run rampant. The film is very post-modern in approach as it tires to reflect ideas about our society.
Overall "Inherent Vice" works better as literature than on a cinematic level, there is no denying this is a refreshing, odd, and unique film experience. P.T. Anderson is a great director, and I commend him for experimenting different styles, genres, and aesthetics with each film. Although I feel like he misfires the more profound he thinks he has to be, while I don't think he was far more successful the less profound he was trying to be in his earlier work.
Overall the film feels like a long journey that ultimately doesn't go anywhere. But that is certainly the point. I can see die-hard Thomas Pynchon and PT Anderson fans considering this a great film. Joaquin Phoenix is the perfect actor for the character of Doc Sportello, with his fro and long chops, however PT Anderson doesn't allow Phoenix to open himself. These are often shut-in, confined performances that doesn't offer the great emotion James Gray gets out of him in something far deeper like "The Immigrant", or "Two Lovers".
Brolin is a riot as big-foot, and Waterson brings something unique as the noir vixen. Anderson's direction is indeed impeccable in many of the scenes with his astonishing push-in dolly shots, tight-close ups, long-takes, and dissolves. The use of music is superb, and at times overbearing as they linger over characters dialog. Johnny Greenwood returns for the third time in a row as Anderson;s composer, and Robert Elswitt's cinematography feels like film stock right out of the 1970's. "Inherent Vice" is a hazy and drowsy film that at times feels soothing, and other times a head-trip. It's a film that is worth dissecting and examining, as far as it will take you.