Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Inherent Vice Review

(dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Warner Bros. Pictures

“Doc may not be a ‘Do-Gooder’ but he's done good.”

     We’ve all got vices, but it just may be that the characters of Paul Thomas Anderson’s L.A. set film have a few more than the rest of us. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Inherent Vice is a neon-tinted, soft-boiled neo-noir that takes the genre away from the Raymond Chandler tropes and into the psychedelic world of the early 70s. Inherent Vice follows, as best it can, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a Private Investigator, whose ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterson) pulls him into a case concerning the disappearance of her lover, a real-estate mogul. Doc becomes wrapped up in a conspiracy involving the cops, the FBI, Chinese heroin shipments, an underground band, a dental association, and possibly even Nixon himself. The thing is, Doc’s penchant for dope makes it difficult to determine how much of the conspiracy is real and how much is the product of poor memory, hallucinations, and a broken heart.

     Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely incredible in this film, and it’s impossible not to watch his antics without a big stupid grin on your face. He imbues Doc with the perfect amount of good intent and sheer stupidity. It’s refreshing to see Phoenix in a looser role, one that allows him to experiment with his comedic abilities. The rest of the cast is stellar, completely devoid of a weak link. There are quite a few big names who lend their talent to small, but memorable supporting roles. Katherine Waterson is definitely an actress to look out for. Her sultry portrayal of Shasta makes it clear why Doc would go through all this trouble for her, but there’s something unreadable about her too, a mysterious trait that makes her intentions hard to pin down. Of all the excellent supporting roles, it’s Josh Brolin who steals nearly every scene he’s in as a civil rights violating cop/actor with a (possibly subtextual) affection for chocolate covered bananas. It’s Phoenix’s show for sure, but the film assembles one of the year’s best ensembles.

     Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing is as masterfully composed as ever. With the help of his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson creates one of the most attractive looking films of the year. Out of Anderson’s recent films, Inherent Vice is his most enjoyable. While it’s not as straight forward as There Will Be Blood, I think it’s an easier film to connect to on an emotional level than The Master. The film relies more on emotional readability than plot readability, and often asks the audience to focus more so on what’s happening than why it’s happening. If the main intent of stories is to answer the question of “who am I?” in regards to the central character(s), then I think Inherent Vice does a fine job of letting us know who Doc Sportello is by the film’s end.

     There’s been a lot of discussion about the plot specifics and a number of critics and audience members have been trying make sense of it. I think the complexity of the plot has been somewhat exaggerated and looked at in a negative light. Yes, it’s impossible to follow all the details of the case in its entirety, but I think to even attempt to do so misses the point of the film. The attentive viewer can follow most of it, given the understanding that the narrative is purposefully loopy, structured in such a way to mimic Doc’s own foggy mind. And perhaps in a throwback to the famous nonsensical noirs of yesteryear, The Big Sleep and The Lady From Shanghai, Inherent Vice’s successes exists beyond plot. I’ll admit, in our age of serialized storytelling, and non-linear structures used as plot devices, it’s difficult to wrap my mind entirely around Anderson’s notion of action taking precedent over plot, of not needing answers for everything. I think, with a few exceptions, it’s something that has prevented me from fully appreciating Anderson’s films. As someone who thrives on exploring themes, it’s difficult for me to stop looking for logical explanations. But with Inherent Vice I was able to sit back, enjoy, and allow logic to fall by the wayside. On a personal level, what’s most remarkable about Inherent Vice is that it made me aware that sometimes it’s necessary to relearn how to watch and analyze certain films.

     Inherent Vice is a film that deserves multiple viewings, and I’m sure it will clear up some of the plot discrepancies but I doubt “solving” the film will give it any more or less meaning. The meaning instead comes from the thrilling character work, comedy moments, and extraordinary filmmaking, all of which feel completely honest and unpretentious despite the occasionally nebulous plot. If you can just sit back and go with the flow, Inherent Vice is a positively groovy film.

Grade: A

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