Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
I am a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and his work. There Will Be Blood stands out in particular as one of my all time favourite films. Therefore I was very much looking forward to seeing Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon book of the same name. Having not read any of Pynchon’s work, it is my understanding that he is famous for writing novels that many consider to be unfilmable – dense and complex stories with large narratives and interweaving characters. If any director is capable of adapting that kind of story to the screen, it’s definitely Anderson. His work on Magnolia shows that he knows how to make a film that encompasses several different stories and characters that all serve to articulate an overarching narrative. However, unlike Magnolia, I did not find myself to be particularly impressed or entertained by this film. The trouble is that I cannot figure out whether this is because Anderson has failed as a writer and director to convey this story or if I have failed as a viewer to understand it. I always try to be careful not to fall into the trap of dismissing a film just because I don’t get it, so I will try to proceed with caution.
As best as I understand it, the story involves the private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is called upon to investigate three different cases that intertwine with one another and all point to one elaborate conspiracy. The first of these cases arrives in the form of Shasta (Katherine Waterston), an old flame who asks Doc to save her new lover Mickey Wolfmann from a plot devised by Mickey’s wife and her lover. The second comes in the form of a Black Guerrilla Family member who hires Doc to track down an Aryan Brotherhood member who owes him money. This AB member Glen Charlock happens to be one of Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguards. The third case comes in the form of Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former drug addict who appeals to Doc to find her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player who she’s been told is dead but whom she believes to be alive. All the while the narration of Doc’s journey is provided by the (possibly) ethereal Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) whose guidance often helps Doc whenever he is stuck.
The film is set in California during the psychedelic 70s and Doc is very much a man of his time. He is a lethargic stoner without any drive or ambition who is only spurred into action by a desire to win his ex-girlfriend back. He wanders aimlessly from place to place and stumbles his way into sticky situations that he meets with a somewhat apathetic attitude. Phoenix plays him to perfection. The problem is that I did not find his story to be very engaging. As soon as we are introduced to Doc, the film presents us with plot point after plot point and never allows any time for the audience to take it all in. Perhaps this was intentional on Anderson’s part, to present the viewer with an overabundance of information in order to convey a chaotically absurd tone that engulfs the viewer with an overwhelming sense of incongruity and arouses their curiosity. However such a concept only works if the viewer is at least entertained and stimulated by what is happening even if they cannot necessarily follow or understand it, kind of like watching an episode of Louie. Even in the parts where I was able to follow what was happening, I simply wasn’t very interested or absorbed by what was happening or by what Doc was going through. I never found myself rooting for him and I never found myself overcome by the chaotic strangeness of what was happening.
There are certainly strong points to this film. There are a wide range of eccentric characters played impeccably by their actors, especially Lt. Det. Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a comically hard as nails cop who relentlessly persecutes Doc and beats him indiscriminately. Anderson, who is famous for his attention to detail, expertly creates an environment that depicts 1970s California with its sunny beaches, vibrant clothing and bizarre people all clouded by the hazy fog of smoke through which Doc views the world. He also includes a plethora of visual gags, from Bigfoot and his chocolate-coated bananas to the hippie recreation of the Last Supper, that provide the film with humourous highlights. However it is difficult to appreciate the strengths of this film when confronted with an overwhelming lack of engagement in the overall story.
I find myself wondering whether this is a film that I could possibly grow to appreciate with successive viewings. However, if it is the case that this film needs to be viewed multiple times in order to be appreciated, does that make it a good film or a bad one? If I had read Pynchon’s book beforehand and allowed this vast and complicated story to develop at my own pace, would I have been able to engage with this film and enjoy what Anderson was able to bring to it and, more importantly, would that make it a good adaptation or a bad one? Usually when I’m struggling to understand a film, I find that the best way to assess it is by my engagement and emotional response. A few weeks ago I went to watch the thematically similar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, even though I did not have a fucking clue what was happening, I was still able to enjoy the film for its wonderfully strange visuals, its twisted humour and its ridiculously weird characters. Inherent Vice, in contrast, failed to engross me in what was happening and failed to have any significant impact on me. While writing this review it occurred to me that I cannot even remember how the film ends. I’m sure that there are many who disagree with me and who enjoyed this film, but for me it was simply not captivating or memorable.