By James Hancock December 12th, 2014
Of all the films released in 2014, I’ve been looking forward to “Inherent Vice” the most. I consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the greatest living filmmakers and for my money “There Will Be Blood” (2007) is the best American movie of the 21st Century. That said, I’m not a blind acolyte and believer in the Paul Thomas Anderson mystique and find some of his work to be incredibly inconsistent, self-indulgent and sloppy. A perfect example of his weaker work for me is “Magnolia (1999) a film that shows all of the classic flaws one would expect from a brilliant young director after he has achieved rock star status with a movie like “Boogie Nights” (1997). To this day I have only once been able to sit through all of “Magnolia” in one sitting and that was when I first saw it in the theater. Granted, even a flawed Paul Thomas Anderson movie has fascinating scenes that continue to resonate long after watching the movie so if I sound overly harsh, I’ll remind the reader that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers. But constantly telling filmmakers how brilliant they are has never led to great careers and I firmly believe that even our filmmaking heroes need some tough love from their admirers occasionally if they are to avoid creative stagnation.
When hardcore film fans discuss Paul Thomas Anderson they commonly discuss his beautiful fluid camera movements and his uncanny talent for working with actors. But what I find even more impressive is his fearless urge to experiment and innovate. He is clearly not a director content to wallow in the same subject matter more than once and remarkably his cinematic style continues to evolve along with his interest in new material. Which brings us to his latest effort, his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel “Inherent Vice”. With “Inherent Vice” Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly having a blast with his subject and tells his story with the easy confidence of a mature director who no longer feels the need to show off with wild directorial flourishes. The movie is incredibly faithful to the source material in terms of its tone and dialogue with the only major change that the narration duties are not handled by the central character of Doc Sportello. Hollywood has a legendary history of hardboiled detective movies and an equally legendary history of wild films that turn the genre on its head like Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973) and “The Big Lebowski” (1998) by the Coen Bros. This is a film that clearly falls into the latter category of movies and can proudly hold its head high in their company (a triple feature for me might be in order). The plot of “Inherent Vice” occasionally borders on incoherent but Anderson completely embraces the chaos. According to legend on “The Big Sleep” (1946) neither the author Raymond Chandler nor the director Howard Hawks understood the story but they knew as long as they had great scenes then audiences would gladly follow them along for the ride. The same holds true with “Inherent Vice” as Paul Thomas Anderson takes this philosophy and runs with it to new strange new heights.
Ostensibly “Inherent Vice” is a missing persons story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1970 but after 20 or 30 minutes I stopped caring at all about the central story and was focused more on all the unhinged characters Doc Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix) was encountering. I have to confess that I initially had trouble surrendering to the rhythms of the movie. The photographic style is dramatically different from Anderson’s earlier work while Phoenix’s role is not as immediately arresting as his performance in “The Master” (2012). With that in mind, by the end of the movie, I was completely sold on his performance, one of the best of his career in my opinion. His ex-girlfriend Shasta (played by Katherine Waterston) is mixed up in the missing persons case which is Doc’s motivation for getting involved in the first place and throughout the case, he has flashbacks of their time together. In one flashback, what starts out as an attempt to use a Ouija board to score drugs turns into what I think is the most romantic sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. The relationship of Doc and Shasta gives the film its heart and foundation keeping the story grounded amidst all the Black Panthers, Aryan Brotherhood members, doped out Dentists, pussy-eating masseuses and other insane characters Doc encounters throughout the movie. The cast which includes Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro and so many other great actors is one of the best of the year but the man whose performance completely takes over the film is Josh Brolin. He plays a renaissance detective named “Bigfoot” Bjornsen who despises hippie scum, particularly Doc, and their love-hate relationship yields by far the most entertaining scenes of the movie.
Whether or not this movie is going to find an audience remains to be seen. Paul Thomas Anderson’s hardcore fans are getting something quite new from him and that can be a difficult pill to swallow for devoted admirers. On the other hand, the film is too eccentric and unpredictable to find a massive audience with casual moviegoers who tend to like their comedy to be a little more broad. Like the documentary “Mondo Hollywood” (1967) that in part inspired Anderson’s approach to the movie, “Inherent Vice” completely immerses the viewer in every bizarre subculture imaginable that the city of Los Angeles has to offer, an experience that will likely fry the brains of many viewers and not always in a way that more straight-laced viewers will enjoy. For me, I couldn’t be happier seeing Anderson go in this new direction. Los Angeles is probably the most overshot film on the surface of the planet and through film and television most people feel as if know the city quite well even if they have never been there. Against all odds Paul Thomas Anderson always manages to show us something new. I lived there for seven years and barely scratched the surface of all the experiences the city has to offer but since the start of his career Paul Thomas Anderson has been exploring Los Angeles and the culture of California in a way unlike any other filmmaker in history. “Inherent Vice” is not going to replace “There Will be Blood” as my favorite movie of his anytime soon but the film confirms Anderson’s place as one of the most original filmmakers alive. I can only imagine what unique remarkable cinematic experiences he’ll offer us in his work to come but for now I’ll gladly revisit this movie several times to savor the unique qualities the movie has to offer.
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