Saturday, January 10, 2015
Paul Thomas Anderson has made the most open-hearted film of his career with Inherent Vice, a sprawling and funky detective story that turns the through-line of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel into something with a different flavor. Anderson follows the novel’s complex (but not incoherent) plot closely, but where Pynchon focused on the end of ‘60s ideals and what came next Anderson has something simpler and a little sweeter on his mind: Somebody misses their ex. The change in tone is marked by the character of Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), a minor figure in the novel who serves as narrator and as a sort of controlling spirit in the film. It’s 1970 and Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private detective in the seaside town of Gordita Beach, California. Doc’s former girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston in a star-making turn) visits him out of concern for her new boyfriend, the married real-estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Shasta Fay is worried that Mickey’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) wants to commit him to a mental hospital and take his money. From there we’re off on a twisty road involving tax-dodging dentists, a bizarre new age retreat center, and a boat called the “Golden Fang” that may lie at the heart of the mystery.
As busy as Inherent Vice is, at the center there is an idea that every now and then two people might find themselves going in the same direction. There are Doc and Shasta Fay, but also a saxophone player named Coy (an affecting Owen Wilson) and his wife (Jena Malone). Coy is presumed dead but is in fact a law enforcement snitch who can’t go home. Even a drug-addled Doc is touched by Coy’s plight, and the most “hippie” moment in the film might be the scene in which Doc is offered the world by an adversary and chooses to help Coy instead. Shasta Fay is as much an enigma as any good femme fatale, but Katherine Waterston grounds her with a sadness over dreams not realized that both breaks Doc’s heart and makes her irresistible. Doc himself is something of a pot-happy Don Quixote, a good P.I. whose head can be turned by a pretty woman or a good story. Joaquin Phoenix gives a committed performance of masterful control as Doc, playing the disassociation perfectly but also giving Doc a keen intelligence. There is so much going on in Inherent Vice that this review can’t do justice to characters played by Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, and Benicio del Toro, but attention must be paid to Josh Brolin as Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. With his close shave and flattop haircut Bigfoot at first appears to represent “The Man”, but he’s as uncomfortable in the LAPD as Doc would be at a Republican precinct meeting. Brolin and Phoenix have some of the film’s funniest scenes together, but the laughs always come from the characters rather than the drugs they’re consuming. Bigfoot should burnish Josh Brolin’s reputation for giving depth to characters we think we understand, he did it in Milk and does it again here in a very different part.
Inherent Vice was shot on film with Robert Elswit serving as director of photography. If you haven’t seen a movie shot on film recently then you should, the experience will do you good. Elswit gives a texture and a creaminess to this world, even to the light itself, that is both immersive and evocative of movies we remember. The level of visual detail is heartening, but if the material being shot didn’t work then of course it wouldn’t matter. There isn’t a filmmaker working whose next film I’m more excited to see that Paul Thomas Anderson. Inherent Vice is more proof of Anderson’s ability to combine directorial flourish with a love of actors, and it’s also another chapter in his history of American dreamers. In bringing Thomas Pynchon to the screen for the first time Anderson has dug out the parts that mattered to him and then made the most of them. What more can we ask from a singular American voice?