Review: Inherent Vice

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Since the late 1980’s, there has been an ever widening gulf between commercial, studio driven films and the independent market, known for catering to specified audiences. Both facets of the American market have thrived on their own accord, so it’s rare to see a major studio fund a smaller budgeted film by an auteur filmmaker, and rarer still for a minor distributer to score a massive commercial hit. In recent years, however, there have been efforts to make these types of releases less mutually exclusive. At the forefront of this has been Warner Brothers, which certainly has its franchises to manage, but also has been making room for some of the more adventurous American filmmakers currently in the game. Paul Thomas Anderson is their latest steal, and it is a wonder that his latest ever got made at all. Inherent Vice is a stoner noir comedy of the highest order, in that little is cohesive, yet the atmosphere is never less than intoxicating.

It should be said upfront that the intent behind Inherent Vice is not to convey a narrative, but rather to observe characters and the environments they inhabit, and fewer locales are more vibrant than Los Angeles at the dawn of the 1970’s. Hippies are a dying breed and the Reagan administration is seeping its governance into even the most liberal crevasses of California. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is feeling the brunt against his countercultural habits more heavily than ever, when one evening his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) appears out of the blue. The two have a lengthy history, and since Doc is a certified private investigator, Shasta beseeches him to help her with a dilemma. Since their break up, she had been seeing a wealthy real estate mogul named Michael Z. Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Shasta’s caught word of Wolfman’s own wife plotting to commit him to a mental institution and thus asks Doc to help her upend those plans. Doc initially agrees, but when he discovers that Wolfman’s bodyguard is dead and that Wolfman and Shasta have subsequently gone missing, he’s on the edge of a far crazier plot than even his drug addled brain can handle.

Naturally, all great artists, including filmmakers, borrow from those that came before them. Paul Thomas Anderson has drawn comparisons to many other American directors in the past and certainly has come into his own over the course of his last several features. If there is one consistent point of inspiration for Anderson, then some might point to him as a logical successor to Robert Altman. True, like Altman, Anderson is able to effortlessly balance large ensembles, but Inherent Vice also sees him embrace storytelling at its most freeform. Simply put, if a film is like a house, then when you visit it, most directors hold you by the hand, guiding you through every room. With Inherent Vice, Anderson essentially opens the door, and lets the audience look around the house for themselves. You might not see every room, and might entirely miss the backyard, but he’s ultimately asking the audience to engage with the material rather than spoon feeding. This carefree style seems to be very much in line with Thomas Pynchon’s original book as well. Granted, for a first glance, this may not necessarily be the best approach, but it undoubtedly will find purchase in subsequent viewings.

Inherent Vice may very well be Anderson’s most expansive cast to date, and while most of the characters function as pieces that may or may not fit into the overall puzzle, its a pure joy to see all of these talents bounce off each other. Thankfully, there are a couple of identifiable humans here. There may not be a single scene where Doc isn’t under the influence of some substance, but Joaquin Phoenix never loses sight of his melancholic core hiding behind the eccentric appearances. Doc has been in a new relationship with a local district attorney (Reese Witherspoon), so the reemergence of Shasta in his life conjures a swell of conflicted feelings in him. Likewise, Katherine Waterston is given some shades to play with even with limited screen time, serving as much more than an object of affection. Her relationship with Doc is an emotional anchor as Inherent Vice ventures into zanier and convoluted territory. The remaining characters are very much broad sketches, but many leave impressions, from the uptight LAPD officer Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson (Josh Brolin), to a coked out dentist played by Martin Short.

As Anderson’s directorial efforts have progressed, so has his technical precision, yet Inherent Vice finds him at his most visually relaxed. Returning director of photography Robert Elswitt paints many scenes in tones of unnatural blue and orange, and Anderson is comfortable in editorially including minor flaws in shots such as readjusting framing. Such touches point to Inherent Vice being self aware, a major shift away from some of Anderson’s previously uncompromising films. Even the opening scene leaps around traditional perspectives, rarely cutting back to an already existing set up. This is all in service to the hazy and drugged tone, which is further expounded by the era specific soundtrack and supporting score by Jonny Greenwood. To think that a major studio put down financing for a film this bizarre shows their faith in the material and those executing it. It may be far less thematically piercing than some of Anderson’s best work, but Inherent Vice is best experienced as a series of character vignettes, an examination of the world changing rapidly and everyone rushing to catch up, or in some cases, to run in the other direction.

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~ by romancinema on December 14, 2014.

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