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 Inherent Vice

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Inherent Vice   Thu Feb 12, 2015 8:15 pm

Paul Thomas Anderson got his career off to a great start with Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997), which put him on the map as a talent to watch out for, then he made Magnolia (1999), his multi-layered 3 hour ensemble piece which was more than a tribute to Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993). Anderson then surprised audiences by making a romantic comedy with Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which was a moving and sweet-hearted film. Anderson didn't make another film for 5 years, when he returned, it was with a bang. There Will Be Blood (2007) was his take on Southern California's oil boom in the early 20th century, and it was an epicly ferocious film which reminded people of how good he was. Another 5 years passed before Anderson hit cinemas again, this time with The Master (2012), his intelligent and engrossing film which was a fictionalised take on the origins Scientology, filmed in glorious 70mm. For his 7th film, Anderson has chosen to do something completely different, and something very risky indeed. While prepping The Master, Anderson read Inherent Vice, the 7th novel by reclusive American author Thomas Pynchon. Risky, as Pynchon's work had never been adapted for the screen, but he gave Anderson his blessing, and Anderson set about adapting Inherent Vice. The book is a notoriously hard nut to crack, and deliberately so. Pynchon's style of prose is delibrately difficult, but that didn't deter Anderson, who took Inherent Vice, and made it the most faithful adaptation possible. It might be seen as an endurence test for some, but when you get down to it, Inherent Vice isn't a film to follow, it's a film to experience, to breathe in, like the toxic fumes of a large joint. You're either with it or not, that's the point.

Set in early 1970, in Gordita Beach, Los Angeles. Dopehead Private Investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks for his help. Her current boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) has been kidnapped and thrown into an insane asylum by his wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her "spiritual guide" boyfriend Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson). Meanwhile, Doc has been approached by Black Guerrilla Tariq Kahlil (Michael K. Williams) to find Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, who just so happens to be one of Wolfmann's bodyguards. At the same time, Doc is also helping ex-heroin addict Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), look for her missing saxaphone playing husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), who is actually doing undercover work. Between the three cases, Doc comes across a mysterious organisation known as The Golden Fang, which according to Doc's lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), is a ship that was in the Bermuda Triangle for 50 years, but Doc soon finds a building shaped like a Golden Fang, where predatory dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) works. Meanwhile, Doc clashes with LAPD Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who keeps Doc up to date just when he's losing the plot due to drug use, and Bigfoot wants Doc to see if there's a link between Aryan henchman Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine) and Coy. Doc also asks Deputy DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) for help regarding Wolfmann's disappearance, and he also mentions about Shasta's frequent absences.

It's an impossible film to follow on first viewing, and even Anderson says this is not a film to keep up with, it's a film you experience. It's difficult to make what Anderson is doing with the film, but it's an overall mellow atmosphere. A lot of people were expecting another Big Lebowski, or judging by the trailer, a knockabout comedy romp, which considering Anderson used the films of the Zucker Brothers as influence when adapting Pynchon's book, did make it seem that way. What this film is closer in tone to is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, both Hunter S. Thompson's allegedly unfilmable novel and the subsequent 1998 film adaptation by Terry Gilliam. Both films share a very drug like tone, have moments that don't seem to make any sense, very offbeat characters, flashes of wild comedy, as well as Benicio del Toro. After making very coherent and clear films, Inherent Vice seems to be sticking two fingers up to the conventions of narrative cinema, and it's being deliberately impossible to follow, as Pynchon would want. The overall atmosphere is a strange one, but a relaxing one nonetheless. With sun-snogged cinematography by Anderson's regular DP Robert Elswit, who captures both the last shades of colour and happiness that the 1960's had to offer, then the brown and grey conservative times that the 1970's would offer up. Another ace in the films sleeve is the old fashioned score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, which harks back to the days of the old film-noirs that Hollywood used to make, and that's a reminder. The film is a film noir, with added drug use and colour.

Anderson has put together a massive ensemble cast for this film, led by Joaquin Phoenix as the drug-addled Doc Sportello, who despite the complexity of the case ahead, is determined to see it through until the end. Phoenix has fun as Doc, who is 6 parts Raoul Duke to 4 parts Philip Marlowe, which makes for an interesting combination, always ticking, both confused and cunning at the same time, maybe that's the drugs doing that. Josh Brolin has fun as Doc's nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen, who is everything Doc isn't. Uptight, moral and very strict, and impartial to corndogs, frozen bananas and "moto panacaku!". The biggest standout of the film is Katherine Waterston as Doc's ex-girlfriend Shasta, who is intriguing, mysterious and ethereal, and she obviously still has feelings for Doc, it's a brilliant performance, and the true femme fatale of the piece. There's equally good support from Owen Wilson as the Coy, the surfer-saxophonist who is too deep undercover to go home, and it's a role Wilson is perfectly cast to play, a bit out of it and paranoid, like the tail end of the 1960's themselves. Benicio Del Toro is a good addition as Sauncho Smilax, who is always able to get Doc out of trouble. It's always good to see Martin Short, who has fun as the lecherous Dr. Blatnoyd, but it would have been nice to have seen more of him. The same could be said of Reese Witherspoon, (who did the part in 4 days, and was suggested by Phoenix), and Eric Roberts as Wolfmann, who was the real McGuffin of the film.





Every now and again, one film slips through the cracks of the Hollywood Studio system, and manages to get onto cinema screens where it catches audiences unawares. They're very rare, but they do happen, Hollywood executives don't usually lower their guard these days, but Inherent Vice was one of those times when their guard was lowered. It's easy to see why it would alienate viewers, which has resulted in mass-walkouts, and it's also easy to accuse the film of being pretentious and deliberately incoherent and impossible to follow for the sake of it. But, Inherent Vice is that rarest beast, a film about building an atmosphere, it doesn't care about plot, or that a film has to have a beginning, middle or end. Anderson paints a picture of California in 1970, and how the country was coming to terms post Manson and post Altamont, and what the brave new world of the 1970's would offer. It's a very ambient film, and one you just relax into, and just go for the ride. Whether it helps to be high while watching it remains to be seen, but it's a film which would possible benefit from a second viewing, even if you hate it. Inherent Vice would make an ideal double bill with Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), which saw Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe placed in 1970's Los Angeles, they both have very similar tones, and it's typical of Anderson to give nods and winks to Altman and his films, but imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism, and Altman would have loved this film. But it'll be a while before anyone dares to adapt Pynchon's work again.
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