Wednesday, December 24, 2014

INHERENT VICE Is a Long, Strange Trip


- Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be in the "I'll damn well do what I please" stage of his career. Okay, so maybe he's sort of always been there, in his way. But INHERENT VICE continues what Anderson's previous film, The Master, started. It feels like a free-form meditation on ... something, with Anderson mostly content to just play with his eclectic cast of characters and see what happens. Should nothing in particular result? Fine by him. That's a big difference versus the thunderous statement of purpose that was There Will Be Blood - still, to me, one of the greatest films of the last few decades. Anderson is still absolutely at the top of his game in terms of craftsmanship. INHERENT VICE is so thick with smoky/hippie atmosphere that it's practically a cinematic contact high. And certainly, the film's plot - an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel - is a neo-noir journey down the rabbit-hole that lends itself to a loose, more free-form sort of storytelling. It's The Long Goodbye meets The Big Lebowski. It's 1970, and it's the last gasp of the free-love, free-dope hippie community of Los Angeles before the times they go a'changin'. And Anderson paints this world in vivid, smoky hues - in 70 millimeter film, it all looks amazing. But while the scene is brought to life, and the shaggy-dog noir story rife with moments of tripped-out brilliance, I still wonder whether the movie is missing a certain something that could have tightened it up into an out-and-out classic. Again, it's that feeling that Anderson is content to sort of just play in this world, not so much concerned with taking the parts and fashioning them into a cohesive and thematically-impactful whole. There's a lot to love about INHERENT VICE, but it also feels like it could have offered more beyond leaving the audience feeling like they've just lived through a crazy fever-dream.

Let me preface by saying that not only am I a huge PTA fan in general, but I also have a huge affinity for sun-soaked neo-noir. I love this genre, and I love the ability it affords a storyteller to tell a free-roaming yarn where part of the point is that nothing quite adds up. INHERENT VICE falls squarely in that tradition, sending its protagonist - doped-out private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) on a strange, spiraling search for a real-estate mogul at the center of a SoCal crime conspiracy. Along the way, Doc encounters all manner of shady characters, corrupt cops, femme fatales, false leads, dead ends, and people who just plain want him dead.

On paper, and as I'm writing this, it all sounds pretty fantastic. And it's true, sort of: INHERENT VICE is rich with great moments and memorable individual scenes. The raggedy narrative takes the form of the film's barely put-together anti-hero PI - loosely cobbled-together, eccentric, and hard to get a read on. The film's scenes often work wonderfully as self-contained vignettes, as Doc has mesmerizing, strange, and often hilarious encounters with a motley crew of weirdos, burn-outs, and bottom-feeders. But the film also takes on a sort of self-indulgent quality, stretching out scenes long past their ideal expiration dates, and letting Phoenix sort of go off the rails in his portrayal of Doc.

Phoenix is one of the best actors working today. Maybe *the* best. But what made his performances in films like The Master and Her so powerful and effective was that his natural weirdness and eccentricity served as a layer behind a facade of normalcy, of being an everyman. In The Master he was the wounded spirit of American soldiers home from war. In Her he was the emotionally crippled soul of modern man in a world more about connection with things than with other people. Here, his Doc is just Doc - there's no pretense about who this guy is. He's a larger-than-life noir character in the vein of Philip Marlowe or The Dude. And playing that sort of character seems to give Phoenix license to just go all-out, balls-to-the-wall nutty. And PTA indulges him, lingering on long takes of Phoenix just sort of muttering, squirming, squinting, and smoking. Lots and lots and lots of smoking, with long, lingering drags aplenty. Don't get me wrong, Phoenix is great here, in his way. He's very funny. And he has the uncanny ability to say so much with just an arch of the eyebrow or a grimace. But the film perhaps goes *a bit* off the rails by indulging all of it. If you're into the whole brevity thing, then you might leave wondering if the movie's two-and-a-half-hour running time could have been cut short, for the better, had Phoenix been reigned in ever so slightly.

The movie's cast is populated with a litany of great actors. The best is Josh Brolin as square-jawed, straight-laced (at least on the surface) cop Lt. Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. Brolin absolutely kills it in this role, portraying Bigfoot as a guy who wants so desperately to be the man's-man ying to Doc's hippie yang that he comes off as oblivious to all of his own eccentricities. Brolin and Phoenix have an endlessly entertaining rapport, and the two play off each other brilliantly.

I was also really impressed by Katherine Waterston as Doc's ex Shasta - the trouble-courting hippie whose perilous relationship with shady mogul Michael Wolfmann (an entertainingly zonked-out Eric Roberts) is what initially lures Doc into launching his investigation. Waterston's Shasta is sort of the classic "out of the past" enigmatic woman, who waltzes back into Doc's life only to screw it up. Waterston does a fantastic job of making Shasta into a worthy motivator for Doc to get off his couch and back into the fray - making her into the hippie chick of a man like Doc's dreams and a man like Bigfoot's worst nightmares. There are a lot of other great actors who turn up in the movie. I wish we got more of Michael Kenneth William's black-power convict Tariq Khalil. We get a lot of Owen Wilson's recovering-addict rocker Coy Harlingen, and man, the scenes between Wilson and Phoenix are so thick with drugged-out haze that you may find yourself coughing afterwords. Wilson is always fun to watch, and though his character at times feels like a bit of a distraction, it's a welcome one. Also excellent is Benicio Del Toro as Doc's lawyer and confidante Sauncho Smilax, Esq. Martin Short pops up in a hilarious extended cameo as a loony co-conspirator of Wolfmann's. And Hong Chau is a scene-stealer as an affable young woman who happens to run a "special" massage parlor that's also part of Wolfmann's master scheme. Also of note: Jena Malone as Wilson's ex-addict wife, and Reese Witherspoon as a put-together Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball - who carries on a mismatched affair with Doc that seems to fill her with self-loathing.

Characters like Witherspoon's Kimball and Brolin's Bigfoot seem to tell a tale of a post-hippie world, in which a true-blue doper like Doc finds himself in a society that's generally become just as weird as he is. The film is set in 1970, and the hippie movement has already peaked. Doc and his ilk are soon-to-be an endangered species. The 60's are giving way to the conservatism of the 70's and 80's. The hippies have been demonized post-Charles Manson - Doc and his ilk are derided as cultists by the cops. And so Doc, with his enduring commitment to living out his days as high as possible, is the walking symbol of a dying breed.

Well, at least that's what I'm extrapolating. As in The Master, Anderson seems to sort of circle around these big themes in INHERENT VICE, but doesn't quite seem to decide what it is, exactly, that he's trying to say here. I've seen some reviews that further expand on some of the ideas I lay out above. But I think going much further is to read more into the film than what's there. Anderson, I think, gets caught up in putting forth an overall vibe of lingering, languid, stoned-out trippiness that he loses track of the big picture storytelling. The result is that the movie ends, and there's a feeling that the movie never quite came together so as to form a cohesive whole. The best noirs have a clockwork precision that informs the surface-level chaos. There are moments here where you can't help but smile at what Anderson's doing (and I haven't read the book to comment on how it works as an adaptation). You can see puzzle pieces falling into place in unexpected and funny ways. Sometimes. Sometimes the pieces just don't seem to add up. When they do, it's great. As with the slowly-unraveling revelation that Wolffmann is involved in a circular scheme, in which a cabal called the Golden Fang deals drugs and then profits from the rehab centers that the addicts inevitably end up in. But some elements of the film - like most everything involving Wilson's rocker, or the verbose, seemingly unnecessary voice-over narration - have too many moments that are head-scratchers.

I like a lot about INHERENT VICE, and it's a film that has a lot of greatness to soak in that's scattered throughout its sprawling running time. What keeps it from total greatness though is that the movie has a lot on its mind. It doesn't want to be pure, Lebowski-esque farce. Anderson seems to want to say a lot about the 60's, the 70's, hippie culture, cop culture, business culture, and the push and pull of liberalism and conservatism in modern America. I'm just not sure that he ever says exactly what he wants to say though. For that reason, INHERENT VICE can feel like a long strange trip without a true light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, it can't be discounted, because the voice telling us this tale is one of the best damn filmmakers we've got.

My grade: B+

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