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Inherent Vice
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by Jay Seaver

"Cuts right through the haze."
5 stars

Thomas Pynchon kicked my butt in both classes where I had to read one of his books twenty years ago, and the film adaptation of "Inherent Vice" seemed like it was going to be the same sort of experience - I felt like I had lost the plot about two minutes into a 148-minute movie, which shouldn't even be possible. Of course, sometimes the plot matters much less than the telling, and the telling of this story is exceptional.

That story starts with dope-addled hippie private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) getting a visit from old girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), warning that her new, married boyfriend, real-estate developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) is about to be caught up in a scheme to put him in a mental institution. Meanwhile, another potential client wants him to approach an old cellmate, both Shasta and Wolfman disappear, a widow (Jena Malone) wants him to investigate the possibility that her husband (Owen Wilson) isn't dead, and when Doc stumbles onto that guy, he wants him to look in on her. Doc also stumbles onto a murder, which means Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a cop who moonlights as an actor, is on his back. All things considered, Doc is starting to wonder if all these cases are really connected or if his brain is just fried.

Given that Doc's not actually the narrator, it would probably be unfair to label him an unreliable one. Still, as the audience tends to follow Doc almost exclusively, the film would be missing something important if it did not portray a certain amount of disorientation and fuzziness of mind that comes as a result of drug use - although it would likely be equally dishonest to make the audience feel impaired. That's the impressive line screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson walks throughout the movie; he gets even a more modern, jaded viewer to connect with the hippie sentiment circa 1970, when it may have felt, in certain circles, like this sort of acceptance of pharmaceuticals as a part to calm, pleasure, or even enlightenment seemed to be poised to break into the mainstream, although a look around the margins at the inflexible police and very businesslike Golden Fang group shows what that sort of idealism is leaving out.

Having that sort of fog surrounding the movie means walking a straight path from problem to solution - or, really, even a wandering one - would probably be missing the point, and that's a potential source of frustration. At just short of two and a half hours, Inherent Vice can be a long sit without many show-stopping sequences, with even what passes for a shootout kind of a shambling, self-deprecating thing, and it's impressive that Anderson and editor Leslie Jones are able to take a storyline that kind of ambles along, ditches what seemed like its original purpose and finishes by resolving what always seemed like a side plot, and come out of it with a movie that never feels overlong or distracted, and only rarely seems to shift weirdly between tones.

The dominant tone is funny, whether from narration that one realizes is just a bit off a couple seconds later, plentiful slapstick, or the signage hanging in a massage parlor doing exactly nothing to hide its true purpose. There's a laugh or two to be found in every scene even before Pynchon and Anderson start connecting characters that don't seem like they fit together. Heck, they often don't, occasionally birthing comedy not from friction but complete incompatibility.

Nobody in the cast does that better than Joaquin Phoenix. Though there's a bit of worry at the start that this will be just another mumbling Phoenix performance that's long on commitment to the character but short on engagement with the audience, there's a spark underneath the dopiness, and that makes the plentiful physical comedy he's got to do even funnier. It doesn't sound like much, but Phoenix falls down as perfectly as anybody ever has, and Anderson makes it a joke's punchline rather than the joke itself. He's got about a dozen different variations on the confused stoner reaction shot, each funnier than the last. That there's often a laugh coming is never actually negated by how, occasionally, the drugs seem like a defense against sadness, with the skills and smarts of someone who may once have been a really good skip-tracer coming through.

Everyone else plays off him, with Josh Brolin the clearest opposite, as funny for being constantly tense as Bigfoot as Phoenix is for being laid-back. Katherine Waterston and Reese Witherspoon are different contrasts as former and current girlfriends who are not of Doc's world (any more), with their relationships making for a quiet mulling of how truly desirable respectability is. There is also a brace of people with good scenes - Martin Short, Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, and more. Hong Chau makes every scene she's in as a helpful call girl better.

It's a small army of characters, but Anderson is a guy who has had some success with sprawling ensembles before, and he doesn't short-change any of the folks providing good support. That sorry of attention to detail is all over, whether in the form of environments that strike just the right balance between realistic and fanciful or a soundtrack that always sets the right mood. Special credit should go to Anderson's collaboration with cinematographer Robert Elswit; not only are some scenes funnier just for how they're framed, but the film absolutely looks like a relic of the early 1970s. See this on 35mm if the option is available.

Anderson has made an extremely entertaining movie that feels like it has unpacked some of the dense meandering that both intrigues and distracts with Pynchon while still maintaining the essential character of the work. I may still be afraid to dig into the basement for my old copy of "Gravity's Rainbow", but I certainly hope that someday it receives an adaptation as engaging as this one.

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originally posted: 12/19/14 14:32:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

User Comments

5/09/15 mr.mike See "The Long Goodbye" instead. 3 stars
2/09/15 Butt A long strange trip without a purpose 3 stars
1/17/15 Langano Sit back & enjoy the ride. 4 stars
1/12/15 Bob Dog They don't make 'em like this anymore. 4 stars
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  12-Dec-2014 (R)
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