DIR/WRI: Paul Thomas Anderson • PRO: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar • DOP: Robert Elswit • ED: Leslie Jones • MUS: Jonny Greenwood • DES: David Crank • CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin
Pulsing through the pot smoke with cinematic prowess, Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision aligns with the paranoid world of enigmatic literary icon Thomas Pynchon, in an adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice. This can only make for cinematic voodoo. This is the kind of thing many a square-eyed Pynchon reader has fantasised about for decades; in earnest. And Vice is a narcotic trip, it lulls and pulls. Sucking the viewer straight down the rabbit hole, through the tunnel of love, and back in time to 1970’s Los Angeles; in what, on the surface, presents itself to be a very Chandleresque detective story, in the vain of The Long Goodbye or The Big Sleep.
So we’re in LA, the free love and peace of the swinging ’60s have waned into the paranoia and hedonism of the 1970s. Doc’s just woke up. Mutton chopped, joint in mouth and carrying himself like a Neil Young wannabe rag doll. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is played with gusto by a dirty looking Joaquin Phoenix. (I mean he’s so dirty at one point I’m convinced I can smell his feet.) Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello a stoner, sandal wearing private dick. Think Phillip Marlowe after a bag of ‘panama red’. Anyway Doc’s ex old lady, Shasta, turns up in the dead of night scared and looking for help. She’s been shacked up with some shady real estate developer who’s embroiled in some diabolical plot. She’s freaked and that isn’t groovy with Doc, so he’s hot on the case. Naturally this kinda set-up lends itself to some serious slapstick and ambiance.
But behind the chaotic slapstick and entertainment, Vice is a socially conscious film, a film with a massive heart that pounds along the heroin trails and through the marijuana haze. This is bold crisp American cinema and Anderson has a very decisive view of America. An America that’s disconnected from itself, that’s wounded and looking for answers in all the wrong places. At the heart of Pynchon’s novel there’s a tremendous sense of melancholy, and a sense of disappointment with the promises of the Hippie movement and free love; which in the end proved as much a pipe dream as ‘democracy’ or the American dream; and just as corruptible. These aspects remain true of Anderson’s movie and it’s clearly a perspective Anderson strongly relates to. The sense of an ideological conflict is evident in the love-hate relationship between Big Foot Bjornson (played by Josh Brolin) and Doc. Big Foot is a hippie-hating LAPD detective with a boxy buzz cut haircut and a questionable penchant for frozen bananas. In a sense, the film is a series of short cameos as the case unfolds, and Doc chases down countless leads, and countless red herrings, and some strange entity called The Golden Fang.
As a major fan of both P.T.A and Pynchon, I have an obligation to say it isn’t perfect, it’s rough around the edges, even for what it’s meant to be, which runs contrary to most of the criticism so far. I think a lot of critics who misjudged Anderson’s previous film The Master (2012) are reluctant to fall into the same trap with Inherent Vice. The Inherent problem with this of course is; it’s a bit like that old Woody Allen joke about him applying what he learned from his mistakes in one marriage, to the next; only to find it didn’t work because it’s a completely different woman. In short Inherent Vice is a completely different woman.
It can’t be denied that Anderson accepted a challenge like no other in grabbing Pynchon’s novel by its metaphorical horns. But too some extent I think Mr. Anderson fell into the trap of being too reverent to the source material. He clearly struggled to pare the book down. This has led to some clichéd representations of characters who lack the sense of dimension they had in Pynchon’s book. Anderson has been quoted as to saying that the plot doesn’t matter, which seems to be over-simplifying things a bit. Plot has a clear function in Pynchon’s writing, it just isn’t always in the foreground of the narrative. What is in the foreground are his characters, who inhabit a world over-saturated with information, a world so chaotic and paranoid it seems impossible for them to function within it.
The performances, however, are, by and large, impeccable. Martin Short is stellar as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a sex-crazed dentist wearing an ultraviolet suit who has cocaine nostrils flared wider than bell bottoms. Katherine Waterson’s portrayal of Shasta Fey Hepworth has a mysterious allure and deftness that’s nothing short of nerve-tingling and electric. Right off the bat she’s earned serious brownie points and established herself as a major leading actress.
Anderson took a serious risk in making a picture that, when you break it down, is principally dialogue driven. I appreciate what he was trying to achieve but I’m not entirely sure it worked. One of Anderson’s greatest assets as a filmmaker is his tremendous sense of mobility and his ability to tailor movement in relation to narrative. There’s a very static quality to the staging in Vice, which makes the imagery less emotionally arresting. We’re left with Pynchon’s words, which is exactly the point. In Andersons own words the film is about ‘Pynchon’.
Johnny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame, has partnered with Anderson again. The score isn’t as prominent a feature of this film as his work in There Will Be Blood or The Master. But elements of those works shine through for sure, with a bit of a more seventies’ish use of synthesizers and guitars. Think Bernard Hermann crossed with Steve Reich and you’re on the right track. David Crank’s production design is off the hook in its accuracy. You can practically smell the 1970s from the image. And it’s pungent. Which is no mean feat since I wasn’t even alive then. The cinematography is grainy, fuzzy and beautiful, courtesy of Anderson’s long-time partner in crime, Robert Elswit.
At its core there’s an unhinged authenticity to Inherent Vice, vividly captivating a specific moment in time. Overall though, flaws aside, this is a grade A pedigree pot movie filled with some golden moments of true comic genius. This is the marriage of two of the most astonishing American talents. Pynchon, without argument being a colossus of post WWII American fiction, and Anderson, the once upon a time wunderkind whose blossomed into a virtuoso, who’ll stare down the barrel of a lens fearlessly, knee deep in the trenches, sleeves rolled up, armed to the teeth fighting the good fight; a real good boy. Keep it up Anderson you talented f*cker, keep rocking and rolling.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Inherent Vice is released 29th January 2015