AFI Fest 2014 Review: ‘Inherent Vice’ – Gravitas and Blow
I suspect many of us have forgotten how much fun it can be to watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. His previous two films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, were grim explorations of the American identity set against the solemn backdrops of capitalism and religious fallacy. Each film was a masterstroke, but each film also felt like a stern talking to from a filmmaker with something impossibly serious to say. Whither went the playful director of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, anyhow?
Into hibernation it seems: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Inherent Vice, is a cocaine snort of a movie, full of rambling insight and focused stupidity. The film was adapted from a 2009 novel by reclusive author Thomas Pynchon, and feels appropriately dense and inscrutable. Its labyrinthine plot can only be absorbed upon first viewing by putting blinders on to all of the wild and manic incidental details. And arguably, it’s those details that make Inherent Vice one of the best movies of the year.
A shaggy, shoeless Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a private eye with more drug habits than furniture. When Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) appears in his apartment one night, asking him to help her get out of a jam with a rich lover (Eric Roberts) and his wife (Serena Scott Thomas), who wants him committed, Doc takes the case.
At first it seems like he simply has nothing better to do, but his lingering baggage with Shasta still needs to be dealt with, and besides… every other person he meets, by choice or mere coincidence, seems to be wrapped up in the same scam whether they know it or not. As Doc investigates further, unveiling conspiracy on top of conspiracy ad infinitum, it emerges that Inherent Vice is a holistic motion picture experience; everything is connected, from half-remembered Ouija boards to heroin addict dentistry to frozen bananas and pornographic neckties.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s combination energy – equally frantic and laid back, often at the exact same time – will evoke many pleasant memories of The Big Lebowski. Here again is a protagonist who seems more comfortable smoking a bowl than paying attention to the plot, and here again he is nevertheless the only person for the job. Anderson’s film bristles with unexpected humor – Phoenix unleashes perhaps the funniest scream in movie history, out of nowhere, never to be commented on – and finds the very idea of the disposable hippie community wandering the wilds of real estate schemes and political conspiracy to be a joke in and of itself.
But the joke is of course on all of us. The humor of Inherent Vice barely masks a vicious social satire in which the rich run slipshod over all others. The ongoing daily panic of people just trying to make ends meet can only end in consuming entire plates of drugs like they were a final meal. Josh Brolin plays “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a childhood friend of Sportello’s, now a police officer and part-time actor, who uses civil rights violations the way Doc uses cocaine. Anything to dull the pain of living in a system that ignores and/or abuses them, anything for a brief moment of clarity, power and/or escape.
Everyone is a tragedy and a victory rolled into one, and everyone is a rich character no matter how little screen time they actually have. Few films have a cast as rich and varied and complicated as the one found here in Inherent Vice, which features particularly remarkable performances from Phoenix, Brolin, Waterston, Michelle Sinclair, Jenna Malone, Benicio Del Toro and Hong Chau.
But the real star is Anderson’s impossibly rich storytelling, as complex as anything he’s ever attempted and yet always a joy to experience, even when you’ve completely lost the narrative thread. It is as though losing the audience is part of Inherent Vice’s scheme: to make the world as vast and tiny as possible, not unlike the way the world actually is. By the time Sportello’s journey is coming to a close, it seems like the only way to end his tale may be to pick and choose his battles, and settle for whatever conclusion he can get.
Life doesn’t allow for long-term solutions to inescapable, endemic problems, but there may be a way to live with ourselves within a world populated by compromise and disappointment. There’s an inherent wisdom to Inherent Vice that escapes the groovy episodes, farcical humor and pea soup atmosphere, and transforms a nearly perfect piece of entertainment into something truly powerful.