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Inherent Vice
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by Peter Sobczynski

"California Sunset"
5 stars

Thomas Pynchon is, of course, one of the great American novelists of the last half-century--a ground-breaking author whose works have entertained, amused, perplexed and outraged readers for decades and one of the few contemporary writers who can send a collective shiver of anticipation up the spine of the literary world with the mere announcement that he is emerging from his long-standing self-imposed isolation from the world with a new work to share. However, in all that time, I do not know of a single serious attempt to bring any of his books to the screen. Oh sure, there have been some films that have been deemed "Pynchonesque" by reviewers and the cult classic "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension" contained enough glimmers of his literary output, ranging from the oddball plotting to specific references like the presence of a company called Yoyodyne in both the film and Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" to inspire a rumor that its director, W.D. Richter, actually was Pynchon. However, no one has ever tried to adapt one of his works and to be honest, I can understand why. Pynchon's novels are grandly elaborate works that thrive on bizarre narrative digressions, in-jokes, allusions to the most remote corners of the pop culture firmament and which tend to lack such items as instantly likable characters with easily understood motives and a plot that can be fully summarized in a sentence or two.

Clearly, if anyone were to even attempt to bring Pynchon to the screen, they would need to be someone whose cinematic concerns were along the same lines as his literary ones and who also possessed both the talent to pull off such an achievement and the sheer chutzpah to even attempt such a thing in the first place. In terms of talent and chutzpah, Paul Thomas Anderson would have to go to the head of the list--over the course of his first six films--"Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "Punch Drunk Love," "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master"--he has taken some of the most unlikely conceits imaginable (a sympathetic look at the porn industry, a portrait of an exceptionally callous oil baron, an arty take on a typical Adam Sandler premise complete with Sandler himself in the first serious role of his career) and made them pay off with some of the best and most audacious American films of our time. With his latest film, "Inherent Vice," Anderson has taken the bait by bringing Pynchon's 2009 detective novel to the big screen and once again, he has gambled much on his enormous talent and has somehow come out a big winner. This is a gloriously whacked-out and surprisingly touching crazy-quilt of a movie that works both as a cinematic translation of Pynchon and as part of Anderson's distinct filmography and is not just the best film of 2014 but Anderson's best work since "Magnolia" and one of the most impressive literary adaptations that I have seen in a long time.

Set in the fictional Southern California beach town of Gordita Beach circa 1970--a poiint in time when the area is still reeling from the Manson murders of the previous year and in the process of beginning the inexorable shift from the communal spirit of the high water mark of the hippie days to the eventual solipsism of the upcoming Me Decade, "Inherent Vice" is centered around Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an extremely laid-back sort who, despite being shaggy enough to resemble a roadie for CSN&Y, makes his living as a private eye. One night, Doc is surprised by a visit by the beautiful Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a former flame who has since gone on to become the mistress of "a gentleman of the straight-world persuasion"--the very rich and very married land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). This is no social call--Shasta need Doc's help to prevent a plot being hatched by Mickey's wife and her boyfriend to have him committed into an insane asylum that they have asked her to participate in. Doc agrees, mostly for old times sake, and finds himself drawn in further when he is subsequently hired by black militant Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) to track down one Glen Charlock, a neo-Nazi who supposedly owes money to Tariq after spending time in prison together and who is now employed as one of Mickey's bodyguards.

The investigation begins but before too long, Doc finds himself being implicated for Charlock's murder by his longtime frenemy and occasional LAPD contact, square-jawed uber-cop and aspiring actor Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornson (Josh Brolin), a guy who busts hippies during the day and then can be seen pretending to be one at night on television hawking a cheesy housing development of Mickey's that offers buyers a lovely view of the nearby flood channel. Doc is soon freed by his legal representative, maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), but learns that both Mickey and Shasta seem to have vanished. Soon afterwards, Doc is hired by Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) to investigate rumors that her late husband, surf musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) is really alive. Doc tracks Coy down quickly enough and Coy tells him that he has been pressed into work by the government to go undercover amongst the hippies of Gordita Beach and stir up trouble but is slowly going crazy because he is not permitted any contact with his family lest he blow his cover. Coy also informs Doc, after hearing about the investigation into Mickey's disappearance, about the existence of something called the Golden Fang, which is either a drug cartel, a yacht, a spectacularly ugly office building or a tax shelter for dentists--according to Coy, it is the yacht iteration that has recently taken off, supposedly with Mickey and Shasta on board.

From this point on, things get a little confusing, so I will try to be brief. There is a visit to the Golden Fang office building that finds Doc encountering Japonica Fenway (Sasha Piertese), a runaway who he was once tasked with tracking down, and the coked-out Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short at his freakiest). There is a visit from Charlock's sister (played by porn star Belladonna) in which she and Doc wind up bonding while huffing from a nitrous oxide tank. There is Doc's nominal current girlfriend, straight-arrow assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon)--even her name is the normal enough that one could expect to find it in an average phone book. There is a visit to a mysterious mental facility with a surprising face amongst the clientele. Eventually, the various threads begin to waft together with unexpected and far-reaching results. All of this is recounted to us, by the way, by Sortilege (singer Joanna Newsom), a bystander to the unfolding events whose cheerfully lilting narration is the furthest thing from hard-boiled imaginable.

Those of you going into "Inherent Vice" expecting all the details of the plot to be wrapped up neatly in the closing scenes in the manner of most proper mysteries are likely going to come away from it feeling either angry or frustrated. Then again, of all the elements that one could choose to focus on, the machinations of the plot are easily the most disposable. Yes, there is a story to be had and if one focuses their attention, they will be able to more or less make it all add up in their heads, at least in the broad strokes. Before one accuses Anderson of getting sloppy, it should be noted that the original book was more or less the same way and that his adaptation follows the path set by Pynchon for the most part--there are a few elements that have been dropped along the way but the cuts are judicious for the most part. Oddly enough, the tale of a detective prowling the streets of Southern California on the trail of a mystery so confusing that even the film itself seems a bit confused by the goings-on should remind some viewers of one of the all-time greats of the genre, Howard Hawks's film of "The Big Sleep," which told a tale so convoluted that no one--not even author Raymond Chandler--has been able to fully explain who was behind the murder of one character.

Since it is a film that finds an amiable stoner stumbling his way through an increasingly strange cast of characters in the pursuit of the solution to a mystery that may add up to more or less than originally expected, many moviegoers will no doubt find themselves comparing "Inherent Vice" to the Coen Brothers beloved cult favorite "The Big Lebowski." Yes, "Lebowski" is obviously in this film's DNA, along with such other quirky semi-mysteries as Godard's "Made in USA," Ivan Passer's "Cutter's Way" and Robert Benton's "The Late Show," but the real influence seems to come from another Raymond Chandler adaptation, Robert Altman's 1973 version of "The Long Goodbye" and not just because Anderson is a longtime Altman acolyte who has paid tribute to the late master throughout his career. Both films take place in roughly the same time period (though "The Long Goodbye" was a contemporary work while "Inherent Vice" is now considered a period piece) and feature central characters who are distinctly out of step with the rapidly changing times. Both feature complex plots that the filmmakers are cheerfully willing to divert from at a moment's notice in order to pursue some offbeat tangent. Both also derive a shocking amount of power in their final scenes when they finally reveal that their screwball heroes are not quite as addled and ineffectual as they seem--both are potentially dangerous men with strict codes of honor and woe unto anyone who underestimates them in either regard. (As Coy admiringly remarks to him at one key point, "You are one dangerous hombre,")

Fans of Anderson's previous films may find themselves put out by the lack of the grandly flamboyant cinematic gestures that usually crop up in his films--there is nothing on display here to rival such setpieces as the drug deal gone bad and the various extended shots in "Boogie Nights," the musical interlude and frog-laden finale of "Magnolia" or the bowling alley climax of "There Will Be Blood"--but this is not the type of film where such coups de theatre would fit in easily. Instead, Anderson is working on a smaller scale that is more interested in offering viewers minutely detailed observations instead of broad strokes and while he comes up with scenes as brilliantly executed as anything that he has done before, he has enough confidence to let them emerge naturally instead of trying to goose things along. Some are hilarious, such as the sequence involving the Martin Short character and a comic riff on the portrait of the Last Supper. Some are dramatic, such as the sequence in which Shasta makes an unexpected return and goes about seducing Doc back to her side. There is even a heartbreaking one in the form of a flashback, beautifully scored to Neil Young's "Journey Through the Past" (one of the killer soundtrack cues on display here), in which Doc and Shasta, in happier days, go off in search of pot based on the instructions supplied by a Ouija board. Even the seemingly throwaway moments are pretty memorable--there is a bit in which Bigfoot belligerently demands more pancakes in a Japanese restaurant that is absolutely hilarious and more than a little unnerving at the same time.

"Inherent Vice" marks Joaquin Phoenix's second collaboration with Anderson, following "The Master," and as good as he was in that film (though sadly overlooked by all the admittedly deserved focus on Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance), he is even better here. Doc is an especially tricky character to play because he has to come across as someone with a convincingly keen intellect that he nevertheless manages to hide just enough to allow people to let their guards down while at the same time appearing to be going through life enveloped by a near-permanent marijuana haze. He is on screen for virtually the entire film and simply nails it in scene after scene--he even demonstrates a heretofore unknown knack for physical comedy in two especially hilarious moments, one in which he reacts to being struck on the head in the few seconds before falling unconscious and the other in which he reacts with--I am not entirely certain what exactly it is--to an appalling photograph to which he is unwittingly exposed. The large supporting cast more than holds there own with him with each one creating vivid character portraits even when they have only a few minutes of screen time. Of them, the most impressive turns comes from two of the lesser-known names in the cast--Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) is a real eye-opener as Shasta and makes you understand just how easily someone like Doc could fall under her spell and Joanna Newsom, though largely unseen for the most part as Sortilege (a minor character in the book), whose chirpy vocal stylings prove to be just the quirky touch that the narration needs in order to truly stand out.

"Inherent Vice" is a great film--I have seen it four times now and it somehow improves and deepens with each subsequent viewing--and while I don't think that it will cause Hollywood to suddenly raid the Pynchon bookshelf for further movie material (as daftly complex as "Inherent Vice" may be, it is arguably the only book of his with a narrative spine that could even come close to supporting a mainstream feature film), it proves conclusively that it can be done when placed in the right hands. It does, however, offer more conclusive proof, as if any was still needed, that Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix are at the very top of their respective professions and it makes one yearn to see what they do next, both separately and (please, please, please) together. And no, you do not necessarily need to be stoned in order to fully appreciate the sights and sounds that "Inherent Vice" has in store for you--however, you will emerge from it feeling giddy from the contact high that you get from seeing a truly spectacular and satisfying movie such as this one.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26449&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/08/15 20:57:55
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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
2/08/15 Butt A long strange trip without a purpose 3 stars
1/16/15 Langano Sit back & enjoy the ride. 4 stars
1/11/15 Bob Dog They don't make 'em like this anymore. 4 stars
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