The Films of 2014: Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice isn’t exactly a misfire, but it’s the first time that he’s made a film that doesn’t feel thoroughly, incontrovertibly his.  That may be because, as readers are no doubt aware, Inherent Vice has been adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name (unread by me).  In theory, Anderson and Pynchon should make an ideal match: they’re both artists who seem to be working on some other, slightly zonked wavelength.  It’s not the same wavelength, though, and while there is much to like about Inherent Vice it comes to life only in brief, fleeting moments.

The film, set in 1970, is a soft-boiled noir, a madcap farce, and an elegy for the innocence and the idealism of the 1960s that have already begun to sour.  The plot, such as it is, follows perpetually stoned private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he attempts to track down the whereabouts of a real estate developer, a heroin-addicted sax player, and his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), all of whom, it turns out, have ties to an international drug cartel/corporate conglomerate known as The Golden Fang.  Doc meanders through the investigation in a haze of pot smoke; as played—perfectly—by Phoenix, he’s a mumbling, paranoid, quietly haunted doofus, an R. Crumb cartoon come to life.  The film is almost worth seeing just for the shapes his face takes.  His foil throughout the film is Lt. “Bigfoot” Bjornson (Josh Brolin), a right-wing cop with a crew cut and a lantern jaw.  Bigfoot is a figure for the hypocrisies and contradictions of the law itself: he trades tips with Doc on the sly, has a penchant for sucking on chocolate-covered bananas, and secretly wants to be a movie star. 

When Inherent Vice works it feels lush and blissed-out, or else it shades a bit of comic business into something eerie and off-putting.  Anderson’s vision of 1970s California is beautifully textured and appropriately surreal.  Bigfoot and Doc have a “mon semblable, mon frère moment that’s one of the best things in the whole film: like Philip Seymour Hoffman singing “Slow Boat To China” to Phoenix in The Master, it’s a confrontation so deliriously weird, sad, and funny that you feel like the top of your head is going to come off.  Phoenix’s scenes with Waterston also have a loose-limbed rawness to them that’s powerfully charged and difficult to shake.

But when the film doesn’t work—and it doesn’t work almost as often as it does—the dialogue and cheeky humor (much of it lifted wholesale from the novel, as I understand) bring everything to a grinding halt.  Pynchon’s dialogue is often hilarious, often stultifying; either way, there’s way too much of it, and it tends to weigh down Anderson stylistically.  Is it possible that Inherent Vice is a successful adaptation of a bad book?  And if so does that make it a bad movie or a good one?  It’s difficult to say for certain.  What is certain is that Inherent Vice showcases Anderson’s gifts as an artist as frequently as it compromises them.  For now, I’ll take it—but I look forward to seeing Anderson back at home on his own wavelength soon.

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