Friday, December 19, 2014

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

4 out of 5

Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice is a stoner movie in the most literal sense of the term - a willfully inscrutable, hard-to-place detective story starring 420-friendly private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in his attempts to locate a missing real estate developer (Eric Roberts).  Yet for all his counterculture shagginess, Sportello is a man with the heart of a classic Hollywood gumshoe - and the associates to match.  There's a damsel in distress - Doc's ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) - who visits his office with a desperate plea for help, the legit contact in the police force (Josh Brolin) whose straight-arrow conservatism rubs up against Doc's grooviness in a fascinatingly fractious partnership, and all the seedy underworld types that push the story into strange, seemingly unrelated cul-de-sacs.

Set squarely, both temporally and philosophically, in 1970, Inherent Vice cultivates a vivid historicity in its ensemble of Southern Californians dealing the fallout from the cultural nuking that was the 1960s.  Permeated with a mixture of foggy marine layer (another nod to its noir-ish origins) and marijuana haze, the film most resembles a recollection of a bad trip.  While Doc's gradual awakening to the rapidly expanding, decidedly un-mellow narcotics trade totally harshes his buzz, Anderson also casts a keen eye upon the parts of Thomas Pynchon's novel that serve as a litany of regret, with little portraits of people trying to rectify their poor decisions - most affectingly, a young mother (Jena Malone) who recently kicked a heroin habit and her missing jazzman husband (Owen Wilson) - living alongside with the new breed of vulgar lowlifes that the straight world sees as taking advantage of Left Coast permissiveness.  (In this post-Charlie Manson environment, the longhairs occupy a broad spectrum, from sanguine to sinister.)

None of this, I should mention, makes Inherent Vice an immediately satisfying experience.  Indeed, neither was The Master, but at least that film had the pretense of portraying a titanic battle for the soul of postwar America.  Inherent Vice is a much funnier film - it is, among many things, an epic ribbing of Chinatown, with its own version of a small-potatoes P.I. unequipped to deal with the much larger conspiracy he stumbles upon.  But its emotional disconnect doesn't really bolster the dark humor the way it should, and it's hard not to think that the filmmaker is leading us into dead ends.  I miss the laser-focused Anderson, the one who made comparatively big-hearted films, or at least ones with riveting pinpoint intensity.  This one often feels cloistered and uninviting as it meanders to nowhere in particular.  

But is Inherent Vice really as difficult as I'm making it out to be?   Not to be wishy-washy, but obtuseness is part of the point here.  Anderson wants us to feel like we've crashed the party late, after all the good stuff has happened, and we're in danger of being asked to help clean up the mess.  Doc's story is devoid of eureka moments because his struggle is to accept the truth in front of him: things are going to get worse before they get better, but that doesn't mean he should stop trying.  He even has a personal oracle, played with beatific calm by Joanna Newsom, practically telling him this.  The key to Inherent Vice isn't in any of its clues or digressions, but in a simple bit of bumper-sticker wisdom soon to define a large chunk of the era it portrays: "shit happens."  That's about as close to the truth as Doc - or any of us - can reasonably expect to be.

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