Monday, December 29, 2014
INHERENT VICE (2014)
Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. December 16, 2014 5:15PM
"Inherent Vice", an adaption of the detective novel by Thomas Pynchon, is the latest from director, Paul Thomas Anderson. This is the first time a book by Mr. Pynchon has attempted to be cinematically rendered and there's probably a good reason for this. The author's novels tend to be quite dense and atmospheric which doesn't necessarily make them easily translated in to film. However, if anyone could possibly bring them to life, that would be Mr. Anderson. The writer/director has a successful history of making films featuring complex and unexpected subject matter with some of Anderson's most engaging work includes the 1970's porn industry in "Boogie Nights", the unconventional romance of "Punch-Drunk Love" and the indirect look at the cult of Scientology in "The Master". With "Inherent Vice", Pynchon's offbeat characters and the era this mystery is set seems right up his alley but the more surreal elements seem to throw the filmmaker off-balance. Some of the scenes that work are delightfully funny and strange but taken together as a whole, the hazy pieces are far too ambiguous and don't fit well enough to feel coherent.
The story takes place in 1970's Los Angeles and the usually tranquil city is tense due to the recent Charles Manson murder trials. Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly cast as Larry "Doc" Sportello, a perpetually stoned private detective who can become somewhat lucid when the time is required. Sportello isn't much to look at, with his mutton-chop sideburns and filthy feet nor particularly charming yet he manages to be utterly irresistible to women.
When his former love, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam) reappears in to his life, those old tender feelings for this classic California beauty resurface. But Shasta has actually sought "Doc" out because she needs help. She has gotten involved with Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a married real-estate tycoon and he's vanished. Shasta is concerned because she's aware that Mickey's wife (Serena Scott Thomas, sister of Kristin) and her lover wanted to have Mickey committed in to a mental institution.
Not long after "Doc" begins his investigation through the sunny streets of L.A., the case turns suddenly quite eerie and violent. He's knocked unconscious after visiting one of Mickey's more lurid investments and awakens next to the dead body of one of the investor's bodyguards. This situation has "Doc" running up against LAPD detective, Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who is no fan of the hippie detective. No-nonsense, intolerant and never in the mood for civility, Bjornsen is the type of lunkhead brute that populated the police force at this time (some would say still). After questioning "Doc" and getting nowhere, Bjornsen lets him go but keeps an eagle-eye on the whereabouts of the bumbling detective.
"Doc" is soon lead in the direction of the Golden Fang, a mysterious syndicate of dentists. After meeting the drug-induced wacko, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), it's clear that this organization has far more sinister interests than simply checking for cavities.
As far as the entangled plot is concerned, "Inherent Vice" is all over the place. Mr. Anderson seems less interested in presenting a clear conclusion to this twisted case but rather putting the focus on a weird, laid-back comic vibe filled with a little sex, a lot of drugs and soft California rock breezing through the air. With reliable help from long-time cinematographer, Robert Elswit (who has done all of Anderson's films except "The Master"), editor, Leslie Jones and Radiohead musician, Jonny Greenwood who composed the music for the director's last three projects, Mr. Anderson has created a beautifully, demented world but it's not nearly enough to make you want to stay long despite the formidable presence of Mr. Phoenix. The actor, who utilized his manic energy to great effect in "The Master", has gone in the opposite end of the spectrum here as his mellow detective hilariously never loses his cool despite the craziness that surrounds him.
Famous faces make appearances throughout including Benicio del Toro as Sportello's friend and lawyer, Sauncho Smillax, Jena Malone as a dentally-challenged, former druggie in search of her possibly still-breathing, deceased musician boyfriend, Coy Harlingen played by Owen Wilson. Also on hand is Resse Witherspoon, who re-teams with her "Walk The Line" co-star, as a straight-laced, district attorney who occasionally beds "Doc" and enjoys his drugs. There are some interesting lesser-known faces on board, in addition to the impressive Ms Waterston, such as Tony-winner, Jefferson Mays and musician, Joanna Newsom as Sortilège who helps out "Doc"on cases and provides the film with much needed narration. It's no surprise that one of the film's greatest strengths are the solid performances as this is one of Mr. Anderson's specialties but the parade of talented actors are still largely wasted as they drift in, then out with most never to be seen again.
It's clear Mr. Anderson had no intention of making a conventional crime noir and he certainly hasn't. "Inherent Vice" is a wild jumble of outlandish reflections and trippy images in search of a tangible narrative. I must admit I had great difficulty following along with this obscure story. Perhaps the film might be better enjoyed (and understood) under the influence but to be perfectly honest, I don't think there's much that would help clear up the confusion.