REVIEW: Inherent Vice

25 11 2014

Inherent ViceNew York Film Festival

Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice” ends with his chief character, Doc Sportello,  attempting to discern shapes within a haze that has formed outside his car window.  Not to worry, this is not a spoiler since screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to end his cinematic adaptation on an entirely different note altogether.  But the passage is such an apropos summation of “Inherent Vice,” both in terms of its content and the ensuing experience, that it certainly deserves a place in the discussion.

While this is a not entirely unusual noir-tinged mystery surrounding corruption and vice, the story is hardly straightforward or easily discernible.  Characters drop in and out of the narrative at will, making it rather difficult to decipher who the key players really are.  Take no motivation and no appearance at face value, because it is likely to change in the blink of an eye.

Anderson cycles through events at such a dizzying speed that trying to connect the dots of “Inherent Vice” in real-time will only result in missing the next key piece of information.  (I found myself drawn to read Pynchon’s novel after seeing the movie to get a firmer grip on the plot.)  Might I suggest just to kick back, allow the film to wash over you, and let Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello be your spirit guide through the fog of Los Angeles in 1970.

In a fictional beach community outside the city proper, steadily stoned private eye Doc tries to make sense of a strange case in a transitional time period.  The city is still reeling from Manson mayhem, and hippies are no longer cute animals at the zoo but entities whose every move is subject to suspicion.  People are beginning to anticipate Nixonite and Reaganite malaise, though it remains unformed and intangible.  Ultimately, his understanding is about as good as ours – which is to say, it scarcely exists.  What begins as a routine investigation of Doc’s ex-flame and her rich new lover quickly spirals into something far more sprawling.

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Yet amidst the all-encompassing barrage of cheating spouses, washed-up stoners, dopey dentists, twisted henchmen, crooked businessmen, and corrupt public officials, “Inherent Vice” makes the general miasma of the time quite coherent.  All these forces are painting American life as something to escape from, crossing paths and even colluding in surprising ways.  Much of the clarity is due to Anderson’s expert commanding of his brilliant ensemble, which mixes more dramatic actors like Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, and Benecio del Toro with the comedic stylings of gifted humorists Owen Wilson and Martin Short.

“Inherent Vice” derives much of its propelling force from these colorful performances Anderson maintains the distinct prosaic voice of Pynchon throughout the film, often deferring to the novel’s grandiloquent words as a means for conveying insights about the world.  This excerpting style is not unlike the one employed by Baz Luhrmann in his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and it serves the film well in disseminating information that the most evocative image struggles to impart.

That is not, however, meant as any slight to Anderson’s longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit.  His richly atmospheric photography provides the canvas from which the mood can emanate.  Given the murkiness enveloping the proceedings at all times, Elswit’s lensing is a crucial component of the film’s success.  His steady vision of Los Angeles from behind the camera makes the landscape perhaps the one dependable constant of the film.

The delirious, slightly delusional “Inherent Vice” may firmly establish Paul Thomas Anderson’s reputation as the most prominent and penetrating Angeleno cinematic conjurer.  A beloved son who sees not only what transpires on its streets but also what lurks behind its windows, he is to the City of Angels what Martin Scorsese is to Big Apple.  The film is yet another showcase of the immaculate perception Anderson possesses of his city, even in spite of any lingering haze.  Although very little about “Inherent Vice” makes immediate sense, he always endows a persistent sense of intriguing fun that cannot be avoided or denied.  B+3stars



6 responses

26 11 2014

Cannot wait to see this. Such a great cast and director. I can’t see this being anything other than great.

I love Doc’s look. Hilarious. Joaquin Phoenix is a champ.

27 11 2014
Lights Camera Reaction

Damn you’re so lucky you got to see this – excellent review.
How would you rank the cast?

27 11 2014

My favorites were by far Martin Short (who only appears in one scene but absolutely destroyed me) and Josh Brolin.

28 11 2014
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29 11 2014

Excited for this. PTA and Joaquin Phoenix are great, and this looks like a really fun movie.

18 01 2015

Really liked this one. The cast and cinematography were excellent, as expected, and there were some truly great scenes in there: Martin Short’s scene, Shasta’s return, the flashback set to Neil Young, the Golden Fang exchange, and the Bigfoot eating the pot scene. Fantastic score, too.

This probably also got the most walkouts I’ve ever seen at the theater.

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