By: Joe Lofranco
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s new film Inherent Vice does at least one thing well: it sets a mood. It does a pretty good job of this too. You know you’re watching an LA Detective Story, albeit transplanted to spaced-out, hippie-era southern California; the pacing, the colours, the general attitude of the whole thing. The mood it sets, however, is pretty much the same as The Big Lebowski, but not as affable; the same as Chinatown, but not as smart; the Big Sleep, but not as complex; Scooby Doo, but not as funny. I think it tries to fulfill too many of the LA Detective flick stereotypes and just stretches itself too thin. After a few days of ruminating on it, I’m still not quite sure of what Anderson was trying to achieve.
The movie is a faithful homage to all the wonderful films and novels that have preceded it in the genre, and we can see this in so many of its scenes, many of which could have been lifted out of any of Raymond Chandler’s pioneering books or adapted movies. (My favourite being when the protagonists get knocked out from behind by an unseen assailant, a scene that has progressed through the years from thrilling action to slapstick, yet it almost always remains critically important to the story). But one of the problems is that, unlike, say Lebowski, Vice doesn’t make any of these scenes fresh or interesting. It simply rehashes them, almost like stock footage.
The film is not without it’s merits though. While I generally disagree with the notion that Anderson is some kind of wunderkind or the reincarnation of Orson Welles, I do recognize that he’s an excellent filmmaker. This film, like most of his others, does succeed in drawing you in and cocooning you in its little world, but it fails to have you care much about any of those who dwell within it.
Inherent Vice starts off as any good detective story should: a dame walks in on our hero, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), and asks for his help. Except this dame is Doc’s old flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Seems her new man is married, and his wife (and her lover) want to enlist Shasta’s help in conning the old coot (Eric Roberts). It unravels from there, as all good detective stories do.
In Anderson’s body of work, I can see where this fits in stylistically. It makes sense visually to me, but not in the tale it tells. I can’t make this piece fit in the puzzle that is his oeuvre, if you want to make it sound fancy. The film is an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name (a novel I have not read). Being somewhat familiar with the author, I know that generally speaking, his books wouldn’t necessarily translate well into film. He uses the medium as fully as he can and takes advantage of the fact that, with writing, you can do things that you just can’t do with movies or comics or radio dramas. His books are supposed to be about a bit more than the story, but how the story itself is told. Part of me feels like Anderson may have made this movie simply because he is a big Pynchon fan and this was the only novel of his that was film-able. Anderson now has the distinction of being the only guy to make a movie out of a Pynchon novel, albeit one that wasn’t as highly praised as some of his others.
The cast is superb; everyone’s acting is great. I particularly dug Josh Brolin in the role of Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, who seemed to me to be the only character who we actually get a deeper look at. Everyone else is just surface. The motley crew of characters coming and going is nothing new for this type of film, and while some may be perturbed by it in the moment, it’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors. The plot is not that complex, it’s just that everyone we’re introduced to is only present for a moment, so we understand little of their motivations or why we should care or not care about them. This is a trope of the genre, and when done well, you can just let yourself go with the flow and not worry too much, it being more about the journey than the destination. But Anderson hasn’t done it well. We hear about neo-nazis, an international crime syndicate, real estate dealings, a musician/government mole, but that’s all we really get to do: hear about them. Just as the movie struggles with trying to find itself amongst too many “attitudes” (is it trying to be funny, sharp, complex? What?!), likewise it’s spread itself too thin in the character department. If you’re going to be so sparse on plot details and background on these evil organizations, then you need to give me some characters to care about. If you’re going to skimp on characters, then we need more details on the plot and the machinations that are going on behind the scenes.
I don’t feel like anyone needs to see Inherent Vice in theatres, even with it’s roadshow 70mm print (which, to be honest, didn’t seem to really be appropriate for this film aesthetically speaking. Lawrence of Arabia? Now there’s a 70mm film!). But it’s still interesting and worth your time should it pop up on VOD. The performances, and the mood, make it passable, but even within the small subgenre of LA Detective Movies, this one is not in the top ten. I’m saying watch it. Watch it a few times even. I do think it will maintain its positive attributes through multiple viewings and may even see some of its less enjoyable ones dissipate a bit. Enjoy it for what it is, but I wouldn’t actively pay for it.