Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice gives a strong contact high

I took a class on Paul Thomas Anderson earlier this year, and it was fun to revisit the work of my favorite director, just to see how fascinating his trajectory has been.  It's hard to even believe that the guy who made Punch Drunk Love followed it up with There Will Be Blood.  A part of me misses that wunderkind showoff phase of his career around the time of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, where he'd shove dazzling sequences and labyrinthine long takes into any space he could find.  Recently, though, he's settled into more controlled, oblique territory with There Will Be Blood and The Master.  Those films are incredible as well, but they're a far cry away from his early work, and it's easy to see why some would find them unappealing.

The jury is still out on whether or not Inherent Vice is a footstep toward a new phase in Anderson's career.  It's still elliptical and difficult, yet there's also something a little more freewheeling and musical about it.  But part of that is owed to Thomas Pynchon, the legendary author of the 2009 novel upon which this film is based, whose style gets translated accurately by all accounts.  Inherent Vice rambles the tale of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a 70s hippie type who splits his time between smoking pot and taking on cases as a private investigator.  He receives a visit from his on-again-off-again flame Shasta Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him of her current affair with real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).  The problem is that Wolfmann's wife and her lover have a plan to get him admitted to a mental institution, and Doc is thrust into the quest of trying to foil that scheme, due to his perennial devotion to Shasta.

It's a complicated setup, and the story only gets knottier from there, but luckily plot is only a tertiary concern to Anderson.  Instead, he asks you to get lost in the film's dreamy, hazy vibe.  Every scene is heavy-lidded -- they linger and meander, but the way they're placed together has such a distinct and deliberate rhythm.  Inherent Vice rises and falls like a chest during respiration.  Just when you're close to spacing out, the movie snaps you back in with a funny moment or a visual flourish or a piece of balletic blocking.  You're not watching it so much as you're swaying to the groove.  There's a mystery to be solved, sure, but why would you want to do that when you can rest in Anderson's ether?

There's a very lived-in feeling to this movie, as if there's an endless amount of life that exists outside of the frame, but especially when it comes to the story's bit players, who come off as TV characters with seasons of backstory to work off of.  As his investigation unravels, Doc roams around Southern California from lead to lead, and we meet new characters along the way.  Some characters appear and recede throughout the story, but even the ones who have a minute or two of screentime are memorable and layered.  This ambling, amorphous structure leads to some stellar self-contained scenes, like Doc's uproarious, coke-fueled adventure with a dentist played by Martin Short.

Though it boasts his visual and compositional stamp, there isn't much in the way of Anderson's traditional themes in this film.  You'll find nary a father-son relationship, nor is there a focus on someone with a prodigious talent.  However, there's one Anderson trademark that's latent in his previous works, but ends up being the backbone here: his sentimental streak.  Inherent Vice is a deeply romantic film, and though he may be lost in the fog of his own joint smoke, all that Doc does is ultimately driven by his love of Shasta.  If this story is a stoner noir, then she's the zooted version of the femme fatale.  Her role in Doc's life has the same rise and fall rhythm of the entire film, as she flits in and out at will.  But she's that fantasy, that reverie, that thing he always comes back to in the dead of the night, whether it may be good for him or not.  Therein lies the key to Inherent Vice: its eyes may not be clear, but its heart is full.

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