' Cinema Romantico: Inherent Vice

Monday, December 15, 2014

Inherent Vice

If "The Master", Paul Thomas Anderson's ginormous puzzle of God-knows-whatism, pertinently established a prevalent theme, it was that its auteur had become The Master of the engimatic cinematic behemoth. Mr. Anderson's run times are colossal, his themes plunge to unknowable depths, his films demand incessant re-watches (has there been a modern-day director whose work so often elicits the comment "I can't wait to watch it again"?) and even then it can be a Herculean struggle to make heads or tails of what's going on. "Inherent Vice", however, while copying the length of PTA's predecessors, is nowhere near as psychologically impenetrable. Oh, it's confusing, definitely, but that's simply on account of an intentional runaway plot. Grasping its innumerable parts is not as consequential as drinking in its refreshingly slack vibe.


The film's kaleidoscopic story is seen through the tinted glasses of Doc Sportello, played by that most physically present of actors, Joaquin Phoenix, with a Lennon-ish mane, a feelin'-groovy strut and a voice that suggests a mellow if firm belief in brotherly love, even if that belief is not always reciprocated. He is a 40's gumshoe re-imagined as a late 60's beatnik trying to keep on keepin' on at the dawn of the 70's, Philip Marlowe if Philip Marlowe preferred bare feet to Florsheims and liked his cannabis anywhere, night or day, rather than his brandy in a glass.

Doc is approached by his ex, the marvelously named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katerine Waterston), like Cerie Xerox crossed with Michelle Phillips. Her current squeeze, a real estate magnate of some renown (Eric Roberts), a none-too-subtle harbinger of greed and excess, has disappeared and she winsomely asks if Doc might help. He agrees to snoop, but less as a sucker lured by a femme fatale than a guy who simply wants to remain right-on for the gal he still adores. That's a critical delination, marking the film as a noir colored in kodachrome as opposed to stern black & white.

"Inherent Vice" is based on a 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon which I have not read, but which seems saddled with a permanent disclaimer of "Unfilmable." And if that's true, it seems at least possible that someone like P.T. Anderson would take such a disclaimer as a personal challenge. His finished product is leisurely and long, even though it feels entirely present in its individual moments, of which there are so, so many. It's akin to a two-and-a-half hour shaggy dog story. If P.T. closes a door, he opens a window. If he closes a window, he opens a portal to some other dimension. At one point, when conducting an "interview", Doc jots down in his notebook "something Spanish." That's essentially the language of the tale being communicated: something Spanish.

It's an able-bodied proposition in keeping everything straight, the names and places, the comings and goings, the vanishings and re-appearances. Martin Short, I'm reasonably certain, wearing a plum suit that makes him look like a deposed emperor, was merely a hallucination from the halluconigen wafting off the screen. That character couldn't have been real. I don't even remember how he factored into the story, which theoretically rules this critic out of order but then watching this film unfold is like being one of the mafiosos in "True Romance" listening to Floyd try and give directions. Who the hell knows? We'll get there when we get there. Jena Malone's one-scene walk-off is sheer magnificence but I'm not sure where it fits either.


Well, maybe I am. She's an ex-heroin addict who's cleaned up in the name of her baby girl and though she summons Doc because she needs him to track down her husband who's also gone missing (and who's played by Owen Wilson with an air that suggests he showed up in the middle of filming and just said "Cast me"). She makes time for a mind-bending monologue with a sunflower coffee cup about her past, present and future, illustrating the delicate line between the counter-culture and the squares. It's blending, and when it's gone, it'll be gone, and it's why the real pre-eminent relationship of the film isn't so much Doc & Shasta as Doc & Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen.

He's played by Josh Brolin with a severe buzzcut and a deadpan gloom denoting a belief that the world is fucked and that vile hippie scum did the fucking. He can't stand Doc and seems eternally out to get him, and yet needs him as an informant much like Doc relies on him for information. They're in this together, like it or not. In the most hysterical sequence in a film this year Doc hallucinates a late-night commercial starring "Bigfoot" in the role of precisely the sort of vile bohemian he despises. Brolin's impeccable monotone makes every flower-power aphorism ring with a hilarity Ron Burgundy could never hope to match. It's also emblematic of the whole film, not just its laconic wit but the way these dueling aspects of America - Dude and Groovy, Man - have run headlong into one another.

We know which one eventually wins, yet whereas anger has so often spilled from the pen of Paul Thomas Anderson, this one is coated in a warmth foreign to the rest of its auteur's oeuvre. Not even in "Punch Drunk Love", a film which felt studious in its glow whereas the glow of "Inherent Vice" feels innate. The characters may mock one another but the film doesn't mock the characters. It's a judge-free zone, observational, and uproarious, and even romantic. It may capture the dying embers of a more free-thinking era, but it doesn't seek to bitterly deconstruct it so much as plaintively wave goodbye.

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