13 January 2015

Inherent Vice: An Experience

Inherent Vice     ★★★★

A Review by Kevin Powers

I feel I should be up front. Paul Thomas Anderson's seventh feature, an adaptation of a recent novel by Thomas Pynchon called "Inherent Vice," defies my star-rating system. It is seemingly pretty bad at times, good at times, and perfect at times (I mean, like, best movie you've ever seen...at times).

While it certainly won't appeal to everyone, to me, it is a wonder, a mystery, one of the most unique and original experiences I've had with a movie. Fittingly, that's what this movie is about as well... an experience.

Something that really kick-started my love for this movie, despite being a die hard P.T. Anderson fan to begin with, is that I recently listened to a nearly-two-hour interview with the director on the podcast, "WTF with Marc Maron." It is one of the greatest interviews I've heard. It clears up a large part of Anderson's thinking about making this movie, while spoiling nothing. And he even alludes to a secretive agreement between him and the author of "Inherent Vice," the reclusive literary genius, everybody's favorite author to try and fail, Thomas Pynchon.

A large part of Anderson's conversation with Maron is about the shared thesis of many of this film's reviews: the disintegration of the more liberal, free-lovin' 1960s into the paranoid conservatism of the 1970s. Having an understanding of this as a jumping-off point truly enriched my "experience" with this movie.

How to offer a summary! It is so hard.

"Inherent Vice" opens with Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), shaggy haired, mutton-chopped, stoned out on his couch. A title card just told us we're in Gordita Beach, CA. It's 1970. A girl comes in as if from out of nowhere. Her name is Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She spins a yarn about a new boyfriend of hers, the millionaire real estate mogul, Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), his wife, her lover, their friends (mostly unsavory), and a scheme to put Mickey in a "loony bin" and rob him of his money.

Doc is a "licensed" private detective, who works in a doctor's office. He is a full-time pothead. After Shasta disappears, he finds himself running headlong into the case, which, if you've seen any noir or private eye flick, is never as simple as it seems. This one is on the more complex end, I'd say. It's one lively and humorous encounter into another and so on and so forth for days, and the entirety of the film's two-and-a-half hour running time.

The major highlights, as far as the string of various encounters go, are Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a drug-addicted sax player, who somehow ties into the Aryan Brotherhood and a group called "Vigilant California"; his newly-clean, drug counselor wife, Hope (Jena Malone); Lt. Det. Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), the LAPD's resident crooked cop/actor; and Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. (Martin Short), a Dr. Feelgood of sorts. Make no mistake. The latter is one of the great cameos in movie history.

There's also Doc's part-time lover and Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon); his lawyer, Sauncho (Benicio Del Toro); an "Asian massage" therapist named Jade (Hong Chau); a Black Panther-type (Michael Kenneth Williams); Doc's best friend and our narrator, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) and his pretty-much mute sidekick, Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn); some FBI agents; a "hit"man, who uses baseball bats; a drug syndicate called "The Golden Fang" and on and on and on. On IMDB, the credited cast is listed at 113 people.

If all of this sounds confusing, that's because it is. And, to top that off, it never truly comes around to anything. Several key plot elements just sort of fade away. That's not to say the end of this movie isn't satisfying. It is anything but. I was in awe by the end of this thing.

Paul Thomas Anderson lays Pynchon's work out there for us and simply lets it happen. This movie is in no way about plot or resolution. It's mostly conversation and internal conflict. It's dazed and confused and manic and maniacal. It's as hazy as a college dorm room and as vibrant as the era it so perfectly captures.

I found myself drawn into this movie as I was with many movies actually made in the 1970s. It draws obvious comparisons to Robert Altman's take on the Raymond Chandler story, "The Long Goodbye" (1973), which features Elliott Gould in the role of detective Philip Marlowe, a man who humorously wanders from lead to lead in a vibrant Los Angeles. In its pacing (and only that), it often reminded me of some of the slower, more methodical 1970s surveillance and paranoia fair, including Alan J. Pakula's "Klute" (1971) and "All the President's Men" (1976), or even Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" (1974). But...

...It's also incredibly funny, though, which brings it, in tone, to a similar idea that Joel and Ethan Coen had in the late 1990s that turned into the cult-classic comedy known as "The Big Lebowski" (1998). That idea being: What if we made a movie, in the tradition of film noir/detective stories, that features a hero, who smokes a lot of pot and has no real goals or motivations other than, hey man, let's just go with the flow? "Inherent Vice" does that, and does it well. It goes with the flow.

Apart from the references and comparisons to both 1970s mainstream cinema and B-movies as well as film noir, "Inherent Vice" also boasts beautiful performances from great actors, who help to capture the mood that Anderson so expertly creates and sustains.

It's no accident that Joaquin Phoenix plays one scene alongside the Owen Wilson character in a totally mumbled and incoherent speech pattern that the audience can hardly hear, much less comprehend; then, later, plays another scene in which he speaks with perfect clarity and enunciation alongside Martin Donovan's wealthy attorney, Crocker Fenway.

There is also a scene near the end between Phoenix and Josh Brolin that features some of the finest acting of the year. It is absolutely perfect, funny and sad and fleeting, as was the fade from the 1969 to 1970.

It uses soundtrack to the max, which is to be expected from PTA. Songs will run for what seems like ten minutes underneath the action for several scenes, then later a Neil Young song will play, very pronounced, triggering memory and time period. That the movie is set in 1970 and the two Neil Young songs used ("Harvest" and "Journey Through the Past") are from 1972, well, that's just another way Anderson treats this whole thing as an experience of a certain time. I mean, Neil Young himself famously bridged this gap as well, going solo at a time when many of the beloved '60s bands were breaking up.

The beauty (and perfection) of this movie and most of Paul Thomas Anderson's work stems from an inherent love of movies. Anderson is a man who learned how to make movies by loving them, watching them, and then making them. "Inherent Vice" will frustrate and confuse, then it will entertain and amuse, and back and forth.

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" is not perfect, but somehow it is. It sets out to do something, though something we may not always grasp, and does it. That's enough for me. I wanted to see this movie again after 30 minutes. Not many movies do that to, or for, me.


  1. What a great review! I really want to see this ASAP, as Anderson is one of those directors who constantly surprises me. I love a film that can defy your logical assessment of it's quality...good, bad, best, worst...it can be everything!

    1. Thanks, man. I've been a lifelong PTA fan. He was one of the ones that got me started in my cinephilia as a teenager. Boogie Nights is forever in my top ten. Just the fact that he made this movie is enough for a favorable review. I just want to be back in this world he's created and have since I left the theater. Go see it. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Great Assessment. I feel like I've already seen the movie!

    1. Thanks. I hope I didn't spoil it too much. I'm quite sure I didn't because this one is impossible to fully remember, much less recap. That's the beauty of it.

  3. The last scene ... That is all.