Review: ‘Inherent Vice’

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… Yeah, a synposis is supposed to go here, but … I don’t even know, man. It’s a movie. Paul Thomas Anderson directed it—he’s good, right? There Will Be Blood was awesome. Joaquin Phoenix! He’s here too. Beyond that? You’re on your own.

Ryan: Inherent Vice actively resists efforts to be understood—think you’re watching a story about fraud and kidnapping? Sorry, now it’s about someone who faked their death to avoid being killed. Or maybe it’s about a drug cartel. Is the drug cartel even a drug cartel? Is someone burning incense? Where did all of this smoke come from?

This is an exuberant mess of a movie, as shaggy and undisciplined—and, ultimately, likeable—as the hippie P.I. at its center. It features the long takes and richly drawn characters that one expects from Paul Thomas Anderson. But it’s also shamelessly random, to the point of silliness. No one will mistake this for Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood, even if it’s obvious they share a parent.

Considering its protagonist, it’s not surprising for Inherent Vice to be this inscrutable. There’s very little direct interaction between the characters with whom Larry “Doc” Sportello interacts; the film is largely a series of conversations. Who’s to say he’s not imagining the whole thing? In either case, Phoenix makes this work … whatever it is.

His Doc is such a lived-in, fully realized character that it’s easy to imagine him as the subject of years’ worth of scatterbrained misadventures prior to this. As his straight-laced, bull-headed foil, Josh Brolin shows a surprising aptitude for surrealist comedy and work with a frozen banana (yes, a frozen banana).

Have you read the book? If so, how does this compare? My understanding is the novel’s been regarded as something approaching unfilmable. And if you haven’t read it, are you now more or less likely to do so?

Rebecca: Though I haven’t read Inherent Vice, anyone familiar with Pynchon would not be surprised that his work is considered ill fit for adaptation. Where we might disagree (without having read reviews, I sense I’ll be a dissenter on this) is that Paul Thomas Anderson is the right auteur for the job.

Yes, Anderson has a distinctive clean-and-yet-dreamlike visual style, and true, he is no stranger to over-the-top characters, or dialogue that veers from poignant to downright hysterical (“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”). But it’s almost as if, with Pynchon, he has found source material that shares too much of his own sensibility; match inscrutable with inscrutable, and what you end up with is … boring.

That’s right! I just called a movie that features a shot of hippies around a table reminiscent of the last supper, but with pizza, a film that might just be one long drug-induced hallucination, boring.

There are magical moments, sure. That frozen banana scene is one of many that had the elderly ladies sitting in front of me in the theater in stitches (they lived through the ‘60s, people—they know what’s up in ways we never will). And, sure, Phoenix, probably the best actor of his generation, gives it his all. Between some standout physical comedy and adorably quizzical expressions, he sells half the movie.

But what about the other half? Does Inherent Vice need to be 148 minutes long? Some scenes exist so characters can give Doc a vital piece of information to further a plot that does not matter, and they simply aren’t fun enough with memorable-enough characters to validate their existence in the script. In fact, many interactions seem designed for the single purpose of showing a 20-something babe with her ass hanging out of her miniskirt coming on to one of the many middle-aged men (Phoenix and … Martin Short?!?) who are attractive to these women, why? Maybe that question will be tackled in the sequel.

This tendency toward misogyny makes Inherent Vice feel oddly retrograde and exploitative beyond its ’70s style/setting, and yes, might even make me want to read the book, as I suspect something must have been lost in translation, especially in regards to the pivotal relationship between Doc and the sad-eyed, supermodel-in-beads object of his affection, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), whose visit to Doc, in typical noir style, sets off the narrative. A scene between them toward the end of the film intends to reveal something poignant about their relationship. Unfortunately, I’ll have to dust off the old hearing aid for my second viewing, because I couldn’t understand what she was saying, what with her sexy, breathy sex mumbling. Oh well.

Even from a visual perspective, there are moments in Inherent Vice that make me wish another director had given this material a shot. Someone like Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who, although twee and past his prime, at least knows how to stage surrealism so it’s engaging instead of yawn-inducing and coolly self-satisfied.

Ryan: If we’re going to hypothetically hand this movie over to directors other than Anderson, Gondry is as good a choice as any … as long as you’re getting the guy who directed Eternal Sunshine and not, you know, The Green Hornet. Or what about Terry Gilliam? There might not be a director alive with as much experience with the surreal as him.

Then again, the source material seems intimidating enough that Anderson might be the only director crazy enough to even attempt an adaptation. If that’s the case, is it better for him to have made the attempt as opposed to there not being one at all? I mean, it might be meandering and kind of pointless, but boring? That’s a bit far.

Honestly, I gave up on the film being cohesive pretty early on. If it works at all, it’s as an arrangement of endearingly weird vignettes that combine the comedic and the tragic to varying degrees, with varying results. Even so, its whole is decidedly lesser than the sum of its parts. This makes Inherent Vice one of its celebrated director’s lesser works—given Anderson’s track record, that still ends up being a minor compliment.

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