For some, myself included, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation whenever a new Paul Thomas Anderson film lands, especially in recent years as the austerity of There Will Be Blood and The Master have rushed him to the top of the stack of America’s brightest, most lauded directors. Inherent Vice seems likely to appease as many of his ardent followers as it confounds. Ostensibly his latest – the first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel – finds Anderson in a breezier mindset. It’s far more approachable than The Master (which, for the record, I loved), and first and foremost it plays as a comedy. But don’t go relaxing just yet. This is every bit the same level of hypnotically unusual we’ve come to expect, only played out to a different tempo.
It’s California, 1970. Larry “Doc” Sportello (a mutton-chopped Joaquin Phoenix) is a perma-stoned private eye relaxing in his beach-hut home, when his former squeeze Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) pays a visit. She spins him a yarn about how her current beau, real estate magnate Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is being set up to get ‘disappeared’, possibly to the loony bin. Like the smoke from his doobie she wafts right out of his life again, but her scent lingers on, and Doc has no choice but to follow it. Soon enough Wolfmann turns up missing. Shasta too. Locating either one of them is destined to take Doc on a hazy, crazy journey through a typically labyrinthine noir plot (you will need to pay attention), one infused with the hallucinogenic paranoia of the era. It’s a wild ride, but a wonderful one.
The green-leafed Los Angeles gumshoe element may link Inherent Vice spiritually with cult-favourite The Big Lebowski, but it’d be misleading to say that they resemble one another (though Anderson’s movie promises to be just as rewarding on repeat viewings). Anderson is a renowned cinephile, and here he tips his hat not just to the Coens, but to Altman (again), Hawks and a whole host of other esteemed talents behind the camera. The film has its touchstones, but Anderson has long been carried by his own voice. If Inherent Vice is beholden to anyone, it is Pynchon; embodied (and disembodied) here by Joanna Newsom’s angelic narrator Sortilege.
Shot on film, which feels appropriate to the period, the journey here feels at once tightly woven and delightfully ramshackle. As much as I enjoyed the nuanced character studies of There Will Be Blood and The Master, Inherent Vice suggests a new phase in Anderson’s career is opening up, or, at least, we’re experiencing a colourful pit stop. Doc is more of a caricature than either Daniel Plainview or Freddy Quell, yet while Phoenix is in every scene here (and adds another grade-A performance to his repertoire) Inherent Vice harks back to the ensemble pieces that made Anderson his name; Boogie Nights and Magnolia (the director certainly has the clout to fill bit-parts with day-players like Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon and Benecio del Toro). The fun physical comedy, goofiness and wry sight gags, meanwhile, trump those of Punch-Drunk Love for belly laughs. Most surprisingly is how big-hearted this film is. Doc seems to sense the tangible possibility of a second chance with Shasta. His search for Wolfmann is really a search for her and drives this ambling mystery forward. This is by far Anderson’s most traditionally romantic picture.
Not that there isn’t another romance bubbling along here. Doc’s chief antagonist – the yin to his yang – is crew-cut sporting, chocolate-covered-frozen-banana-fellating, “renaissance cop” Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). As is often the case when modern fiction looks to the recent past, the characters and situations feel like greater reflections of their times. Doc is the outgoing, outmoded failed optimism of the 60’s hippy set; a poster-boy for dopey counter-culturalism; while Bigfoot is the system that can’t quite understand him. Similarly, Doc’s quest seems like a reflection of how the 60’s wild experimentalism was about to run into the difficulties of the tainted, suited, conspiracy-fuelled 70’s. Doc and Bigfoot circle throughout the picture, trying to make sense of one another. It’s a kind of flirtation and makes for some of Inherent Vice‘s most entertaining scenes. Of which there are a great, great many.
In fact, in all honesty, I haven’t felt so consistently entertained at the cinema in a long time. You can understand, on viewing Inherent Vice, why it hasn’t quite captured the confidence of awards season the way other more conservative pictures have. Anderson’s film is too wacky, too itchy and far too goddamn randy. In much the same way that Kubrick never seemed to tire of his more adolescent preoccupations, Anderson still has a hot-streak for the sexy, and Inherent Vice sates this appetite arguably more than any of his previous films. The perceived longest take in this feature encompasses a sex scene from foreplay through to climax – it’s also the film’s most tonally unusual scene, one which ushers in the film’s more slippery final act.
For as strong and enjoyable as Inherent Vice is in the main, there’s a sense of curious fade-out to the final furlong. This is a two and a half hour movie, and a convoluted one at that. While Newsom’s narration helps to keep our heads above water, the running time will perhaps lead some viewers to anticipate more payoff than they’re going to get. Not that Inherent Vice particularly short-changes, but the climax is more thoughtful and enigmatic than one might expect, though it’s also Anderson at his most optimistic and romantic. Doc puts the ‘hero’ into anti-hero far more than any of Anderson’s previous protagonists. Witness his crusade-like endeavour to reunite presumed-dead informant Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) with his pining family (one of the film’s many narrative diversions). A couple in the screening I went to walked out around 10 minutes before the end of the movie. Their loss. I can’t help but wonder if they don’t represent a portion of the audience who expect this kind of thing to end with a car chase? Perhaps they realised this wasn’t the movie they wanted and cut their losses?
When The Master came out I gave it 4.5/5, and my reticence at applying full marks is something I’ve come to regret. But Anderson’s films appreciate over time. There Will Be Blood (his outright masterpiece?) overwhelmed me on first viewing. It’s taken revisits on all of his pictures for me to appreciate them as a whole. Inherent Vice feels as though it will similarly simmer down; its rambling hippy love story likely to gain focus as the distracting elements reveal themselves as fake-outs and blind alleys. As clever as L.A. Confidential, as funny as The Big Lebowski and as cool as Pulp Fiction. Inherent Vice might not be to everyone’s tastes, but like Doc, it makes no apologies for itself. You either go with it intuitively or you don’t.
And while paying attention to the plot is important, don’t rest all of your chips on it. You won’t see the woods for the trees. Oof, mixed metaphor. Fuck it. Full marks.