Saturday, October 4, 2014
Inherent Vice is possibly the most confusing of all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films. That's saying something considering he directed the enigmatic The Master and Punch-Drunk Love. At least in the case of those films one feels like one can get some kind of a grip on their respective themes because Anderson is a pretty accessible person and wrote the material himself. Inherent Vice is a different animal altogether. Adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, one can guess (I haven't read it) that coherence was sacrificed in favor of faithfulness to the book's feel, consistency maybe never having existed on the page in the first place. In any event, the incoherence is the least of one's concerns. When Anderson makes a film, he plays the long game, knowing... no... insisting that one see the movie again and again. It's what makes Inherent Vice so compelling. One wants to wallow in its noirish, surfer-gone-to-seed, atmosphere and revisit the movie again and again, with the hopes that its central mystery might be clarified in an eventual viewing.
A quick rundown of its premise: Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private eye who splits his time between smoking pot and defending his countercultural persona from longtime frenemy Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). One day, in a hallucinatory nighttime visit, Doc's ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) returns to ask for his help. She has taken up with crooked billionaire Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and suspects that his wife and the wife's boyfriend have cooked up a plan to have Mickey committed. Soon, Mickey's missing, Shasta has disappeared, and Doc is approached by two other clients trying to find their own respective missing acquaintances who, strangely enough, also happen to be connected to Mickey. With a deep bench of actors in a cast that includes personalities ranging from Benicio del Toro to porn star Belladonna (credited as Michelle Sinclair) it becomes difficult enough to keep all of the story's players straight, let alone the convoluted plot machinations.
So what makes Inherent Vice one of the year's best films? In a time when movies have become too hung up on reality and logic to justify flat by-the-numbers storylines, Inherent Vice is a genuine glimpse through the looking glass or "a trip" to use the parlance of its hippie detective hero. Anderson constantly rearranges the game board for Doc, who manages to keep up with the ever-changing circumstances far easier than the viewer despite being perpetually stoned. Anderson doesn't try too hard to keep viewers informed through his narrator, the almost precognitive Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who delivers exposition by channeling Pynchon's prose. But this grants Anderson license to luxuriate in the quirkiness of each and every individual connected to the case in a way that recalls Howard Hawks and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, among the greatest detective films of all time and no less confusing. Bigfoot is a SAG-card carrying cop who moonlights in bit parts on shows like Adam-12. Reese Witherspoon is once again reunited with her Walk the Line co-star as Doc's current girlfriend, a prim Deputy District Attorney who avoids him at work but smokes up with him at night. Martin Short makes an impression as an endodontist with a pivotally important coke habit who's generous enough to share his drugs with both his patients and Doc.
Phoenix's interpretation of Doc, a dogged investigator underestimated because he only appears clueless, is pitch-perfect. On a scale from lazy doper to befuddled private dick, Doc falls in that sweet spot somewhere between Jeff Bridges' Dude in The Big Lebowski and Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. Inherent Vice falls somewhere in there too, alternately funny and evocative of the best California noirs, forging a new subgenre with its mashing up of surfer/stoner culture and detective mystery. It's why Inherent Vice, ephemeral and confusing as it may be, is an event worth experiencing.
Inherent Vice is having its world premiere tonight at the 52nd New York Film Festival and is playing at 9 pm at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023; and 9:15 pm and 11:59 pm at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St (north side between Broadway and Amsterdam, upper level), New York, NY 10023.
At 12:30 pm Sunday, October 5th, the festival presents On Cinema: Paul Thomas Anderson at Alice Tully Hall, in which the director will discuss the films that have inspired him. For ticket information go online here, or call CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500.