Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Post #900: Inherent Vice Review - Fumbling Face-First into the Fumes of the Past

No matter how impressed I’ve been by so many of 2014’s films, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is very much a standout. PTA is one of America’s best directors, and - unlike Wes Anderson, who writes and directs his own stories - this picture is based on a recent novel by one of America’s most renowned writers, Thomas Pynchon. Much more importantly, however, Inherent Vice is an adventure in anachronism and unreliable narration.

The story: Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a scruffy-looking private investigator who lives in 1970’s Los Angeles. This long-time drug-user knows the town, and he understands the competing, equally-iniquitous systems of crime and law enforcement - but he’s also aware that he’s killed so many brain cells that he can’t always trust what he says or hears. So imagine his shock when Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), an old flame, enters his home and says that she’s in trouble.

Shasta tells Doc that she has a boyfriend/sugar-daddy: Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), the biggest real estate developer in town. What's wrong now is that Mickey’s wife, along with the wife’s lover, want to involve Shasta in a plot to have Wolfmann declared insane so they can keep all his wealth for themselves. Despite Larry’s distrust, he can’t turn his ex away, even if it forces him to go face-to-face with a deadly Neo-Nazi biker (Keith Jardine), a shockingly open-minded member of the militant black movement (Michael K. Williams (The Wire's Omar!)), and Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) - a detective who loves to hate hippies.

It feels like an age since I featured this trailer.

So, for once, I find myself at a slight loss because I still haven’t seen The Big Lebowski. I’ll catch the movie eventually, but I suspect that it may be the best possible comparison. As a result, I can only say that Inherent Vice is sort of like a Dashiell Hammett story filtered through the style of Hunter S. Thompson. Basically, it’s The Maltese Falcon meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Doc struggles through a labyrinth of seemingly-unconnected people, using any trick he can to draw his next clue out of them - and, throughout this search, he faces as much resistance from law enforcement as he does from the figures that are engaged in violently-illegal activities...

But how can you trust the clues when you’re not even sure what’s really being experienced by the PI who pieces them together?

IV is a hard movie to parse, and it’s not just because many elements in it are so ridiculously meta as to make me wonder if the film's creators (or I) are on drugs. I watched my rental DVD with two friends, happy to learn that one of them had just finished the novel. For all three of us, the most consistent issue was that the dialogue portion of the audio track was a bit too quiet – and Phoenix adopts this manner of speech that makes him even harder to understand. Between the rapid-fire line readings, the audio issues, and the antiquated dialogue, I decided that I needed to watch the picture again - just to have the subtitles on the second time around.

The actors and actresses in this movie are uniformly exceptional. Joaquin Phoenix does a letter-perfect job here, where he must convey a man who’s: stung by his former lover, without being completely distraught over her; so drugged-out that he may be hallucinating at any time – and he knows it; a con artist who can sell his disguises when he needs to, but can’t keep from speaking his mind otherwise. Sportello is like a young, 60’s-era version of Columbo – gleaning new insights with a combination of simple-man trustworthiness and an ability to be persistent as well as annoying. The story largely works because Doc is a wiseass as well as an idiot, highly fallible and passionately-principled.

Actually, most people say "maritime" or "admiralty" law, Bigfoot.

Josh Brolin is equally impressive as the self-righteous, hard-boiled, mean-spirited Detective Bjornsen. In Bigfoot, Doc finds the perfect, combative foil – a man who hates everything he believes in and does, and yet leans on his nemesis constantly. Their antipathy is so much fun to witness that it’s a bit intoxicating. My friend said that Brolin was the best possible actor to portray Bigfoot, and while I didn’t read the book, I must admit that Josh works beautifully here.

Waterston was unknown to me, but she breathes life into a part that is partly a stock role and partly obscure. By the very nature of its genre, Shasta is bound to be the femme fatale – the sympathetic, suffering victim who pulls our hero into the story because she’s involved in terrible things. Her poise and expressive face convey a lot throughout various flashback sequences, but she eats up the script when she’s given the chance. As written, it’s a difficult role, but she conveys Shasta’s pain and wandering, hungry nature quite nicely.

My problem as a reviewer, then, is not underselling the various supporting roles. None of them are present so often as to make them major players, but each turns in a fine performance, and I think the picture would be far weaker without their work (and, of course, Anderson’s expert direction). Reese Witherspoon takes on something I‘ve never seen in her career – an unpredictable hybrid of extremely pro-government DA and casual party-girl; you can’t tell what she’s going to do next, or even why. Benicio Del Torro puts in his best support work since The Usual Suspects, all brisk banter and an improbable degree of resourcefulness. Owen Wilson’s nicely-layered part pops into the 70’s aesthetic to make you genuinely wonder if you’re watching a Wes Anderson production. And yet Jenna Malone, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph, and Martin freaking Short are just four of the many faces that flesh out this vivid and illicit vision of LA gone totally off the rails.

One of the biggest obstacles for viewers will be the dialogue. As noted above, a lot of it is quickly-delivered, full of references drawn straight out of the time period (and, thus, obscure to modern-day audiences). I liked it – and was pleased when my friend informed me that much of it was taken directly from the book – but I had the benefit of being able to rewind... or to watch it again with closed captions enabled.

This aspect dovetails into the larger obstacle: the intricate and confusing story. In true film noir form, the mystery Shasta that sets Doc on the trail of is as complex and full of coincidences and red herrings as Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In a 2 hour and 29 minute feature, it’s rough when you don’t understand what’s going on until you have 40 minutes left. Characters go in and out of the narrative freely, almost randomly, and you’re left with little way of being sure of the motives, desires, goals, or affiliation of nearly everyone. If you combine that with the dialogue, you create the possibility that you’ll satisfy audiences who like mysteries and are willing to try to follow along, but will lose anyone who isn’t accustomed to either of those.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from Inherent Vice. I took some comfort in the fact that this is only Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh film, and that all of them have shown about as much obsessive, detail-oriented devotion to quality as Stanley Kubrick put into his own work. This means that I had faith in the narrative, while not being surprised by the perfectly-curated soundtrack or the excellent visuals - which were full of lush static scenes, great tracking shots, and smart set-ups. Yet I couldn’t have anticipated how very funny IV is, how strongly I would respond to the roles played by Phoenix and Brolin, or how much I would enjoy the setting.

When the movie was over, I immediately checked the DVD for deleted scenes. Even though I intended to replay it, I wanted to know what tidbits had been removed from Anderson's version of the story. The friend who had read the book noted that a big theme here – one that Paul Thomas either doesn’t express right or didn’t want to convey – was the death of the 60’s and the hippies at its heart. But there were no deleted scenes (or any extras) on the disc, nor have I read the novel, and so I can only go by what I experienced (twice, now). Since this picture defies conventions enough to make describing it more difficult, I can only rely on what I’ve experienced, and what makes sense to include in this review.

It's a rough picture, in every single aspect imaginable - one with a film of grime over the image. You can almost feel it, and it's a suitable filter for the camera, as what we see, the people involved, and what they do are fairly unclean. Or, in the case of our hero, hazed over.

Inherent Vice was refreshing, difficult in a pleasant way, and raunchy in a fashion that matches its period setting precisely. It’s a fun little ride to go on, one that I recommend strongly. My own prediction is that I will see PTA’s picture a third time – in addition to borrowing the book off the friend who sat through it with me and proffered so many helpful facts. In the end, the last place you would ever want to be lost is among the cops, users, pushers, and parasitic businessmen that comprise the world of this picture.

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