Monday, January 19, 2015
Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few living filmmakers who can truly be called an artist, has long been enamored with author Thomas Pynchon, author of such indescribable works as Gravity's Rainbow and Mason and Dixon. INHERENT VICE came together for Anderson after a previous project proved too difficult to adapt. I've read some Pynchon and my hat is off to anyone who even tries. PTA is certainly the best candidate for the job, someone whose films have had their share of oblique moments. The author, whose reclusiveness and lack of head shots kinda makes him the Terrence Malick of the publishing world, gave his blessing when he read the director's adaptation. I wonder what Pynchon thought of some of the odder moments in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD? Did he view a kindred spirit?
Los Angeles, 1970. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, in a great comedic performance of deft physicality) is a stoner hippie private eye who one night is visited by his ex, Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), for whom he harbors vivid, warm memories despite a cranium polluted by weed, coke, and Lord knows what else. She's there on business, worried for her current squeeze, a greedy land developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who she thinks is about to be committed to an asylum by his wife and her fitness trainer/lover. Doc, who uses an examination room in a medical office to see his clients, has also been hired to find one of Mickey's bodyguards, gone missing. Soon, Mickey and Shasta also disappear. Also missing is a saxophone player named Coy (Owen Wilson). To add to the stew, a formerly missing girl turns up in the office of druggie dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) and Doc learns that her father (for whom he once worked) is somehow linked to Wolfmann. Oh, and several kilos of heroin.
Aiding and hindering Doc in his mystery solving is his weary attorney Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro, at times looking like Walter Matthau), oddball cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, who is riotously funny and almost steals the movie), and Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), Doc's sometime lover. The complexity of the plot in Pynchon's story and Anderson's movie invites comparison to THE BIG SLEEP (book and film). For the inevitable complaints of INHERENT VICE having an inpenetrable storyline and not making sense, I refer you to SLEEP'S author Raymond Chandler, who created such a labyrinth of a story even he couldn't identify who committed one of the murders. Read: it just doesn't matter.
If you can get behind that attitude, you'll have an easier time with INHERENT VICE. Go with it, man. Hell, you may enjoy yourself. This was a wildly pleasurable movie for me, a smorgasboard of eccentricity and directorial flash. Anderson again steers expertly, channeling the likes of Robert Altman (who he obviously emulates greatly), the Great Noirs of the '30s/'40s, and even current peers like the Coens (lots of BIG LEBOWSKI vibes, but other films, too) and sometimes even a dash of Tarantino. But Anderson is his own animal, and unlike many, able to tame himself in the process. Even with a goofy project such as this, he has matured dramatically as a director. As much as I admire MAGNOLIA, I felt it ultimately spun way out of control. More recently, PTA has known when to hold back, to let the pace slow and to let a scene play and play. Long takes, sometimes uncomfortable. Lots of close ups, reminiscent of '70s motion pictures. So exciting to see on the big screen.
And yes, this new movie is quite bizarre. Very few people will get this one. I was surprised at how silly and broad the film was at times. Real belly laughs. And lots of drug consumption. Underneath the weirdness, occasional insight on social and political mores of the post-hippie era, a time when the Charles Manson slaughters rang heavily in the air. Fine score by Jonny Greenwood and a few choice tunes by Neil Young. There is unobtrusive narration that isn't mere laziness on the storytellers' part (which narration tends to be), but rather diffident commentary that fits perfectly. It, Del Toro's presence and many other elements reminded me of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, but INHERENT VICE is a lot easier to take and far more enjoyable.
I was fortunate to sit with a savvy, appreciative audience. Only two walkouts out of twenty plus. Normally, I'd be quite content if I were the only one in the theater, as idiot audiences really detract from the experience. But when everyone is in the groove and laughing in the right places, it's like a real symbiosis, brah.