I can only think I like Inherent Vice, since the more I try to wrap my head around it, the more it slips away. Like many of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, especially his last three, it’s ironic the clearest word to sum them up is opaque. His films feel burnt at the edges, like catching a glimpse of a person just as they turn the corner but you can’t make out enough detail, so you follow to get another look and another until all is clear. The more you’re willing to follow Anderson down a pot-smoke rabbit hole, the more rewarding Inherent Vice will be. Multiple viewings may be required. It helps that it’s all so, so funny, with an absurdist comic tone that lends more laughs than you expect. Scratch that. This is a comedy, albeit an epic one infused with the grandeur of an era that’s actually more a state of mind than a history lesson. It’s a kaleidoscope that’s quasi-political, psuedo-spiritual, and treats cannabis consumption like a religious order: How else could you provide the groove-out vibey vibes? Such were the attitudes of 1970s California, or so the film vividly depicts, making Inherent Vice not just a place or a time, but a feeling.
We know the plot, the setup, the femme fatale, and of a disappearance quickly into the picture. Our hero—if he can be called a hero— is Larry “Doc” Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix like a Cheech and Chong impersonation of The Maltese Falcon private eye Sam Spade. We’re introduced to the convoluted plot through voiceover by Doc’s Assistant (Joanna Newsome), who acts as a bumbling stream of consciousness and as a narrator, and then by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), who has a sort of flower-power radiance that intoxicates the cinema screen. She’s sleeping with big shot real-estate mogul, Mickey Wolfmann, (Eric Roberts). Or she was—he’s gone missing, and she wants Dearest Doc to find him. Shasta warns it goes further, and pleads for Doc to ask the girl he’s going with, District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), to investigate. There’s a boiling plot to steal his fortune, and from there the investigation erupts into a zigzagging labyrinth of story beats that confront Doc with an All-American detective named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), a lesbianonic message parlor, a reenactment of The Last Supper with pizza, and a delirious joyride with Martin Short as a zany dentist.
Really, it’s a Jackson Pollack painting of a film, with a kinetic, emotive chaos that hits on levels beyond the cognitive. Pynchon’s story somersaults through logic and then cartwheels around it; you aren’t sure, or I wasn’t, which parts of the plot make sense and which don’t, or if it matters. Think of the famously convoluted The Big Sleep, only on psychotropics, with the shadowy ambiguity of film noir done as druggie paranoia. Many will try to understand the story—critics will try—but they shouldn’t. It’s a plot heavy film where the plot doesn’t matter, made to be enjoyed and felt but not picked apart. The film is adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and I’m told reading his work is an out-of-this-world, absorbing mindfuck. Paul Thomas Anderson must do the book proud, then, since my theater was left stunned. Many sat through the credits.
If Doc has a spirit animal, it’s an ancient map where all the details are fading and the map key has water spilled on it. Characters coast from A to D even if it might mean skipping B. Inherent Vice doesn’t mind skipping B, C, half of D, and at some points skipping ahead to K, all before taking a breather to backpedal back to J. I could only recount the plot in broad strokes, like an anecdote you heard at a bar once, where you only remember some details but not others, regardless of their importance. I seem to remember moments more than plot, like a rain-soaked flashback filmed in a long take between Doc and Shasta that’s as truthfully tender as anything Jane Austen put on paper. Their relationship is complex and beautiful. A five-minute dialogue scene between the two, also captured without cutting, has Shasta fully naked, possibly masturbating, and probably using her foot to play with Doc’s penis. It’s as well written, perfectly photographed, and handsomely performed as anything in Anderson’s career.
With the help of genius cinematographer and longtime collaborator Robert Elswit, Anderson frames his shots simply and unobtrusively. The camera rarely cuts, and even less often it moves. Instead of the sweeping camera moves of Boogie Nights or the frenetic handheld punctuating key scenes from There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice uses delicate details for power. Characters are often framed against blank, white backgrounds, as though they’re unanchored by the physical space they inhabit, floating in the ether. As direct as the style seems, Anderson does many peculiar things that might go unnoticed on a first viewing. Namely, how he plays with editing.
Movies are little more than a series of unaccounted for absences in time. A dad getting out of a car is suddenly in his house’s kitchen. A well edited scene makes this a logical jump in time that doesn’t register while watching. By using subtle changes in cutting patterns, Anderson and editor Leslie Jones call attention to the innate strangeness of film editing to foster a pervading and powerful sense of paranoia. It’s nothing short of inspired, and only someone as devout a believer in the magic of movies would think to twist its basic foundation so brilliantly. Anderson continues to prove he’s the retroactively adopted son of three fathers, Kubrick, Scorsese, and Altman, but he’s ever an artist with his own voice. Even the performances seem finely calibrated to Anderson’s own wavelength, with Phoenix again doing bizarre but stunning work. Never has staring into space been so moving. Brolin gives a never-been-better turn as an emasculated police detective with a hilarious oral fixation, and Katherine Waterston gives the breakout performance of the year.
Leaving the theater, my gut instinct was to google an explanation, a linear beat-by-beat explanation to help me digest the plot. But that would suffocate the tone Paul Thomas Anderson has painstakingly created. It’s a mood that heightens some senses while deafening others, asking us to rewind the film as it plays forward, creating for the viewer the sense of being adrift. You float through these character’s lives with distance. Strange as it is to say, Inherent Vice is so aloof, indirect, and passive it makes The Master seem downright direct. To some, this will be an impenetrable flaw, a bridge that’s not crossable, and a wall that can’t be traversed. But to others, including me, the character’s being kept at an arm’s length and the tone staying smeared hints at something deeper.
There’s a sorrow chasing Doc, Bigfoot, and Shasta, an emptiness they refuse to face. When it comes close, they run, they yell, they get high, or they take on another case. Inherent Vice’s characters, and indeed the film itself, are as distant from us as its trio of leads are from themselves, creating an air of melancholy that, by the film’s end, creeps up on all of us. Pynchon and Anderson seem to say that’s life. But there’s an indisputable sincerity and sweetness to these people, and you come to care about them the way you care for someone you didn’t realize you loved until they were gone. Inherent Vice will haunt you, but it’s a gentle spirit.
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