From aspiring porn stars in the sun-drenched ‘70s to megalomaniacal, turn-of-the-century oil barons, Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most uniquely identifiable directors currently working in cinema.
His projects range enormously in topic and scope; all that connects his work is a handful of recurring themes and a certain visual acuity that marks him as a director. Take a frame from any of his films – Hard Eight to The Master; there’s an intimacy, an in-the-moment-ness. The same is true of Inherent Vice, the latest installment on PTA’s filmography.
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s radioactive novel of the same name, the film, like the book, is a luminous, off-kilter exploration of the death of ‘60s counterculture, swallowed up by corruption, the likes of Charles Manson and The Man.
Even the film’s poster perfectly evokes the era: a neon-lit beach at sunset, faces swirling amidst the luxuriant hair of a hippy chick bombshell. The bombshell in question here is one Shasta Fay Hepworth (stand-out Katherine Waterston), a tanned, leggy vision of loveliness – with a butt-load of baggage – who turns up in the kitchen of former boyfriend Doc Sportello looking for help.
Doc, played by two-time Anderson collaborator Joaquin Phoenix, is the hero of the piece, a a gumshoe in sandals. Bushy haired and side-burned, bemused, startled, perpetually stoned, occasionally hysterical, Phoenix’s portrays Doc like a live-action Looney Tunes character.
Compared to his nervy turn in PTA’s The Master, Phoenix here is mellowness personified, all sweetness and light, a good guy beach bum replete with inarticulate noises, constantly smoking or rolling joints, continuously lighting joints or taking pointless notes on a case – or series of interconnected cases – that cannot possibly lead anywhere.
Inherent Vice glows with a hazy, chiaroscuro light, courtesy of Robert Elswit, while Jonny Greenwood provides an iconoclastic surf rock vibe. PTA’s camera, meanwhile, creeps slowly in on its characters, creating a feeling of intimacy as the world closes in slowly around them.
He knows his influences, too: the Inherent Vice’s opening shot – waves between beach houses – recalls Robert Altman while the film’s philosophising narrator seems like an surfer chick version of Sam Elliot’s cowboy from The Big Lebowski. There’s even a smidge of The French Connection 2.
A warmer, fuzzier, later period Chinatown, Inherent Vice’s mystery is almost purely existential; indeed, the he film often plays like a series of vignettes: Doc goes for a paranoia-inducing car ride with a coked-up, sex addicted dentist –an extended cameo for The Three Amigos’ Martin Short; Doc huffs NOS with Maya Rudolph, as one of his many would-be femme fatale clients.
The cast as a whole is fairly astonishing, even if they mostly flit past – Owen Wilson as an undercover jazz saxophonist; Reese Witherspoon as an uptight ADA; Eric Roberts as a ruthless property developer; Benicio Del Toro as a toned-down version of his Fear and Loathing character.
There’s Nazis, kidnapping, revenge killings, jazz saxophonists, and perhaps the best performance of Josh Brolin’s career: as playful fascist Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, a Dragnet-style ‘50s relic with a fondness for chocolate bananas.
Deeply unhappy and often hilarious, Brolin steals every scene he’s in, right up to a mesmerizing finale involving a busted door and an overflowing ashtray. So ingrained is he in this hyper-realized world, however, it’s possible that, as with Phoenix’s performance, he may well be passed over by the Academy come awards season.
Inherent Captures is a dreamlike encapsulation of the early ‘70s, the end of the hippies, the rise of Nixon, the culmination of the Age of Aquarius – this is, to coin a phrase, stoner noir. When Doc gets clocked in the head, the screen doesn’t cut to black; we watch him flail and stumble through a beaded curtain before he hits the deck.
Rambling, occasionally bordering on incoherent, obscure but never dull, Inherent Vice feels like a shaggy dog tale being told by an old friend: you’re willing to put up with the scattershot approach for the cumulative experience – as Doc himself says, “Thinking comes later”. Like most of PTA’s oeuvre, there’s a lot to unpack here; the film may demand multiple viewings, but, of just one, Inherent Vice seems like more than the sum of its parts.
Inherent Vice is tangled, labyrinthine, viewed through a haze of reefer smoke. If you can, see it at an independent cinema. The Prince Charles off Covent Garden, for instance, is perfect; a classic dive, all darkness and leather seats. Even if it doesn’t quite hang together, the film is a genuine trip. If this is how Thomas Pynchon adapts to film then bring on Gravity’s Rainbow!