Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is one of the most unapologetically bizarre studio films I’ve ever seen. Make no mistake, this film, which is currently being distributed by Warner Bros., is batshit bonkers. The story is consistently nonsensical, the characters often get so caught up with what they’re saying, they end up mumbling sentences just ‘cause, subplots are introduced and developed, before vanishing without warning, and on and on. Inherent Vice maintains this behavior throughout its two and a half hour running time. It’s a maddeningly complex film that cares to explain nothing. Which is precisely why it might be brilliant.

The logline for the film, adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel (unread by me) is simple: a drug-fueled private investigator named Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by his former lover, Shasta (Katherine Waterson), who informs Doc that her current boyfriend might soon be kidnapped. As a favor, Shasta asks Doc to do what he can to gather more information about the would-be disappearance. Simple enough.

Well, for starters (and believe me, we’re just getting started here), Shasta’s boyfriend isn’t all hers. In fact, he’s a shady real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann who is married to a dame who may be responsible for his disappearance. In order to find Mickey, Doc must track down some seriously strange characters. Every new acquaintance introduces Doc to a fresh set of problems. Here’s an example: shortly into the film, Doc takes on another case, from ex-junkie Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone). Hope wants Doc to find out if her saxophone-playing husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), is in fact dead, as has been reported. When Doc finds Coy, the first thing Coy asks of Doc is to track down his wife, Hope, just to check in on her and make sure she’s all right. For whatever reason, Doc fails to tell Coy that he’s already met with Hope, and that she is in fact the one who hired Doc to look for Coy. Oh, and it turns out that Coy happens to have some information about this Wolfmann guy. Round and round we go.
That’s just a taste of the meandering style of Inherent Vice. I can’t even begin to explain how Doc’s occasional hook-up, a proper attorney named Penny (Reese Witherspoon), a Black Panther-ish cat (Michael K. Williams), Doc’s zany lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), a coke-loving doctor (Martin Short), and many more weave their way into the story. Nor, after just one viewing, do I have the ability to adequately explain how an entity called the Golden Fang, Richard Nixon’s campaign, and the Aryan Brotherhood all play into the film. The most prominent supporting character is a flat-top cop named Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Bigfoot hates hippies like Doc, and goes out of his way to make their lives a living hell, which is why Doc and Bigfoot seem to hate each other about as much as they love each other.

So here’s the thing. It might seem like I’m trying to make this review purposefully confusing. So far, it could very well read as a poor attempt at opaque, snarky humor. The movie’s confusing, so my review will be too!. Trust me, that is not my intention. I’ve spent the last few days racking my brain about Inherent Vice, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no easy or clear way to present the information laid out in the film.

If you see Inherent Vice for its performances, then I promise you won’t be let down. Joaquin Phoenix is a performer chiefly concerned with never playing the same part twice, of which his Doc is perfect evidence. There isn’t a shred of Freddie Quell or Theodore Twombly or Bruno Weiss find within Doc. Through Doc, Phoenix embodies a Yeah man, whatever persona that is consistently hilarious. Brolin too is excellent as the tight-assed Bigfoot, brooding and shuffling around, chewing every possible scene beyond recognition. But the real star here is Katherine Waterson, whose bright eyes and effortless innocence manage to steal every scene she’s in. I’ve seen a plenty of movies that have featured Waterson, but I’m having trouble remembering her in any of them. This will no longer be the case.
To arrive at my main point. Inherent Vice is an infuriatingly complicated film that enjoys being an infuriatingly complicated film. It doesn’t explain things, because it doesn’t give a shit about explaining things. It’s so unapologetic in its execution, that I’m actually forced to admire it. Despite being wildly popular, Paul Thomas Anderson does not make easy films. They may be entertaining and compelling, but they are far from ordinary. In that regard, it’s easy to identify Inherent Vice as a Paul Thomas Anderson film. But to be clear: the tone, style, and execution of Inherent Vice is unlike anything Anderson has ever made. Those expecting Inherent Vice to be a return to the fast and furious ‘70s Los Angeles drug world of Boogie Nights will be sorely let down. As will those pining for another meditative character study like The Master. Inherent Vice is a film that defies simple classification. But it is a movie that demands, and deserves, reflection. If I wrote this review the night I saw the film, I’d likely be panning it. In many ways, the film simply didn’t click for me. But in the days since watching Inherent Vice, I’ve realized that it doesn’t intend to click. And that, like it or not, is part of its charm.

One of the first things I said upon leaving the theater with my friend is that Inherent Vice is the kind of movie you have to see again (and again) in order to “get it.” Problem is, at that point, I had no interest in seeing it again. That was three days ago. Now, I can’t wait to sit down and let the world of this film wash over me again. B+


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28 comments:

  1. Well, this review is the definition of "hype". This is the first time you give a grade lower than "A-" to a PTA film, ain't it?

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    1. Yep, this is my first non-A PTA review. Which I think would actually be the opposite of hype.

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    2. PTA+Phoenix+great cast+chaotic shit and still a non F grade couldn't be more hipying

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    3. I'll explain better:
      Having read the book, and believing it was unfilmable, I was a bit disappointed/worried when PTA chose this project. I was expecting a total disaster. For what i've just read on your review, he did a great joob AND stayed as true as possible to the book, and this, trust me, was the most difficult part. Yes, it is not an A grade but B+ still is a good one, especially since I was expecting his first failure. I love the man and I'm glad he apparently delivered. Can't wait to see it.

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    4. Okay cool, that definitely makes more sense. Thanks for explaining, genuinely. I just didn't know what you meant! I really want to read the book now.

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    5. Yeah I admit I didn't explain that good at first. I really suggest you the novel, like every other Pynchon's one, they are absolutely fucking chaos

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    6. It sounds like I'd really enjoy them. Which one is your favorite?

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  2. Wow, it definitely sounds crazy... more reason to see it.

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    1. I'll be very interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

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  3. Love your review dude and LOVE your last sentence with the "wash me over" phrase. I feel the exact same way every time I decide to watch a Paul Thomas Anderson film. He has this ability to urge you sit down and let yourself drawn by what's happening on screen. He's definitely among the most fascinating directors working today and God I'd love to watch that film as soon as possible.

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    1. Can't wait to hear what you think about this one. In fact, I myself will be curious to see how it grows on me. Who knows, I might love it come this time next year. It's a puzzler, no doubt.

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  4. Lovely review! Knowing your love for PTA, I was expecting this to be another A or A+ for you, but I was slightly surprised to see the grade you gave it. Your review only confirms what other people have already said, which is that this is a film that needs to be rewatched many times in order to fully appreciate what it's trying to say (whatever that may be). It's something that is true in PTA's other films as well. I think my reaction to this film will be similar to what I had for The Master: At first, an admiration, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I love and have faith in PTA, so I am very excited for this!

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    1. Thanks! I had the exact same experience with The Master as well. There Will Be Blood was so immediately gratifying. I felt like I got the shit kicked out of me after I saw that film for the first time. So I suppose I expected something like that from The Master as well. But it was so meditative, took me a while to realize that I loved it. I honestly don't think I'll ever love Inherent Vice as much as his other films, but shit, who knows.

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  5. There is something so enticing about the phrase "unapologetically bizarre." :-) I might need to see this.

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    1. That it is, my friend. I'd love to hear what you think of this one!

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  6. Bizarre. Late 60s psychedelia. Phoenix's mutton chops. PTA. Sounds like an all around great time to me! I've only read one Pynchon novel thus far (The Crying of Lot 49) and I thought that was really funny, though extremely confusing, so seeing what PTA and his crew have whipped up here is definitely getting me excited. Love how you took the time to really let the film sit with you before doing the write-up btw. Not enough people do that today.

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    1. Can't wait to hear what you think of this one. In terms of waiting to write a review. I've written on deadline for publications before, and it was usually a total drag. If you hate or love a film, you know it right away. But those ones in between are harder to process. Inherent Vice is definitely a movie that deserves more time.

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  7. Is this really his worst (or at least weakest) film?

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    1. It is, yes. To me, anyway. It is very, very strange. And very difficult to follow.

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  8. Oh man, that may be too much for me, I barely made it through The Master. But I'll see it for the cinematography. Excellent review!

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    1. Thanks! The cinematography is good, for sure, but it's a fly on the wall approach. Not many centered compositions or fancy long takes, which are prevalent in PTA's other films.

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    2. Oh, the centered compositions and the long takes are thing that I really love in PTA films.

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    3. Yeah, PTA seems to purposefully abandon that model here. It's still immaculately shot, but not for the reasons PTA's other films are.

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  9. At this point, I'm just looking forward to kicking back and enjoying the madness. This is probably my most anticipated unwatched film from last year, apart from Two Days, One Night.

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    1. That's really the best way to take in this film. Sit back and let it wash over you. It's insane.

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  10. Hey man, pretty interesting writing on yet another great PTA flick. I think Inherent Vice will find itself baffling many film goers expecting a Burn After Reading-esque screwball experience and instead facing a labyrinth that sticks true to Pynchon's work. Conversely, you have the PT Anderson die hards (like me) who look forward to a PT Anderson movie and not a love letter to Thomas Pynchon, they too will be disappointed.

    I really enjoyed this film, it's unlike any of Anderson's films to date and is filled with a slew of great performances, mainly Phoenix and Brolin. In my humble opinion, the flighty and forgettable Katherine Waterson turns in a performance that bleeds desperation. I'm gonna disagree with you here man, where I was impressed with the motor-mouthed readings of Ms. Hong Chau and liked what I saw from Jena Malone and Reese Witherspoon, Waterson made me groan, really groan.

    It's this need to charm that bothered me, I never connected with her character, I found myself thinking of the listless (my opinion, sorry) Juliette Lewis when she came on screen, a pretty face and a flat voice against a mammoth of the craft of screen acting, Joaquin Phoenix.

    Forgive me but I haven't been able to vent about that to anyone as of yet. I really liked this flick all and all and would recommend it to all my lit major friends and none of my fellow Paul Thomas Addicts.Once again, you do a killer job summarizing what I liked about Inherent Vice. Good on you.

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    1. Hey man, I completely understand where you're coming from. Obviously, I loved her work in this movie, but nothing in this film (including the performances) are for everyone. It's just so... odd. So I get why her work didn't land for you.

      I really need to see this movie again, because I haven't been able to get it out of my head. PTA is so unique in that regard. All of his films get better with time.

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