Release: January 9, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
The Andersonian school of thought is that one ought to at least work a little for their entertainment. A movie featuring a bunch of booze, bongs and babes doesn’t seem like it would be hard to follow along with, but if you don’t know Anderson then know this: the undertaking is going to be inherently complex.
You know when you are being told that story about someone that knew someone else by way of their sister’s bestie who had a rude neighbor and it was that neighbor’s uncle who was important — and by the time Uncle has factored in to the story your attention is well on its way out the door? A similar phenomenon has been known to occur with this already infamously meandering tale about sex, drugs, a lot of paranoia and a little Private Eye-ing.
I suggest passing on this joint if you are the type to tune out of the Uncle anecdote before we even get to the Neighbor. For there are a whole lot of people to meet, an even greater pile of Hindu Kush to burn through and a sea of narrative drift and perhaps indulgently long takes to overcome before arriving at a conclusion that really doesn’t deliver much in the way of closure.
Joaquin Phoenix is tapped to portray a character in a story everyone thought impossible to adapt to the silver screen. Though the buzz has morphed into something else now: the adaptation is possible but perhaps not without throwing a lot of people, the stoned and the sober alike, into confusion after one too many character introductions. But let’s start from the beginning. Doc Sportello is awoken on his surf-side couch in southern California by the sudden reappearance of his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him she’s got a new boyfriend.
The new Mr. Wonderful is someone of fair prominence, a shady real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). There is a plot, either perceived or actual — just like a great many other situations at hand here — by Wolfmann’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her extra-somethin’-somethin’ (Jordan Christian-Hearn) to have Mickey institutionalized for his wanting to join a clan of neo-Nazis, despite his being brought up Jewish.
This appears to be mission numero uno. On top of this, however, a smorgasbord of subplots start working their way into the fold, including one involving one of Mickey’s bodyguards, who currently owes a lot of dough to some thug named . . . ah, what’s the use with names . . . the guy is played by Michael Kenneth Williams. When Doc goes to investigate the bodyguard’s whereabouts he stumbles upon not a private home but a brothel; when he’s knocked unconscious there he awakens not to the sight of two beautiful girls fighting over his stash of smokable items but rather a disgruntled right-wing, anti-hippie detective named (this one’s important) Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an absolutely hilarious Josh Brolin) who demands he tell him who killed the bodyguard. And, who is responsible for the recent disappearance of Wolfmann and Shasta Fay.
Ding-ding-ding. Suddenly the priorities change for Doc. But first, another puff. Given the news of his “ex old lady,” he plunges himself deep into the murky waters of the So-Cal beach scene of the early ’70s, a scene that’s loath to obfuscate the difference between acceptable and unacceptable lifestyles — weed is for losers guys, but not cocaine — and assorted other addictions. Doc is a fish-out-of-water 9 times out of 10 as he’s high 10 times out of those same 10, possessing a kind of nonchalance that manifests more often as befuddlement. And of course Bigfoot, himself a former hippie but now more interested in gaining power and prestige, has a field day taking apart and putting back together the cliché that is Doc Sportello.
Behind the year’s best mutton chops lies a surprisingly perceptive private investigator, and a remorseful ex-boyfriend. Though the complexities of Inherent Vice don’t make it easy to access anything on a very deep level, Doc is easy to love. His life choices probably aren’t acceptable to many but when compared to the filth and squalor surrounding him, a misery that encrusts itself upon these shores like barnacles on a ship hull, his vices feel harmless. As Doc works alongside Bigfoot as a favor to him rather than being converted into an informant as requested, he is aided in the unraveling of this seemingly never-ending yarn by a true friend in Sauncho Smilax (Benecio del Toro), a man posing as a criminal lawyer.
There is no point in being vague: I did not understand or keep up with everything that went on during this incredibly sprawling investigation. I could have honestly benefitted from reading the book but there’s something about being confined in a theater chair, completely engrossed by what you’re watching without really any sense of direction or a clear path to the end. Inherent Vice is mesmeric in its ambition. Poetic in its cinematography; entertaining by virtue of its thematic depravity.
Ultimately and unfortunately, not an experience everyone will get high off of though.
Recommendation: Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, we may not have the most coherent film ever but this is quite intentional. Readers of DSB, this is also not the most coherent review ever either. Intentional? I think not. This is a damned hard film to describe and I actually really dig that about it. The fundamentals are there for me: stunning cinematography, solid performances enhanced by an incredibly entertaining wardrobe selection, humor, an interesting plot and a hell of an atmosphere. If any of that appeals, hit this one in theaters while you can.
Running Time: 148 mins.
Quoted: “Doc may not be a ‘Do-Gooder,’ but he’s done good.”
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