Cool. Calm. Confusing.
It’s impossible to ignore a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson. As a director he’s just too damn interesting. He also has an exceedingly good track record of weird and wonderful productions, dented (in my opinion) only slightly by 2012’s The Master, which, although finely shot and propped up by two superb performances from Joaquin Phoenix and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, isn’t as engrossing as his previous works. Granted this is hardly a backhand considering the quality of what came before it, but one has to draw the line somewhere.
And so, off the back of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, comes PTA’s latest effort. Unlike its predecessor tended to be in places, Inherent Vice certainly isn’t dull. The reversion to a full on, star-studded ensemble cast was always going to be an intriguing factor, as it usually is when PTA’s behind the camera. Few would have doubted that it would pass any scrutiny with flying colours, which proves to be the case. Quite literally in fact. The bright, loud, beach-hippy-doper-versus-plastic-fantastic-Madison-Avenue nature of the time period, coupled with the slick, foul-mouthed but hip-cool script, brings out high-grade performances from all involved. Phoenix returns and runs things from the front. His easy-going style and consistently confused expression provide a warm, likeable lead character in Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, but plenty of others stand out beside him. Josh Brolin is hilariously unsubtle as workaholic LAPD detective and nemesis/friend/partner/whatever he feels like to Doc (the pancake scene, you’ll know when you see it), while Reese Witherspoon (classic suit-come-stoner/do-gooder when she feels like it), Owen Wilson (who reaches Hansel/Zoolander levels of glorious, eye-popping freaky deaky-ness), and Benicio del Toro (playing an attorney in early-70s California, nice touch) all do their bit to carry the comical, yet dangerous proceedings from page to the big screen.
Actors really do seem to raise their game a notch when working for PTA, probably because they know their comrades will be thinking, and therefore doing the same thing. Credit goes to lesser known and cameo players alike in this case too, as they add a rich variety of comedy and intensity to mad-as-a-hatter proceedings. British-born Katherine Waterston oozes sexuality, cunning, and outright cool as the elusive Shasta Fay Hepworth. She glides in and out of the story, the subconscious, and the stoner-induced atmosphere the film creates, culminating in a wonderful monologue conducted in, erm, interesting conditions. PTA has always aced pretty much every form of sex on film; lustful, awkward, violent, cringe worthy, disturbing, hilarious, you name it. The key with a character such as Shasta, whom Doc’s involvement centres around, is too imbed her into the type of audience thought where one finds familiarity within her, both positive and negative, but ultimately enough positivity to want her to succeed. PTA does this brilliantly with Waterston, who takes her chance and runs with it. Meanwhile Hong Chau (a hip-talking prostitute), old-school star Jeannie Berlin (in a brief but fantastic cameo as Doc’s ‘aunt’), and pretty-much-retired porn actress Michelle Sinclair (a Nazi biker’s sister who shares a great, drug-addled scene with Phoenix), are each excellent in their own right.
So where does the picture stumble? Well, behind the oh-so-cool exterior (and I genuinely mean that), is a plot that’s nothing more than confusing as fuck. It’s a name dropping/no face spectacular, with people disappearing here, being linked to unseen characters there, turning up dead/alive/unconscious/doped up, getting involved with the police, a drug cartel, a Nazi biker gang, a hit man, a cult, and a Lord-only-knows what else. It’s classic PTA, leave-your-brain-at-the-door-but-don’t material. I’m a firm believer that a novel and its concurrent picture should always be one hundred percent separate entities, in the sense that it should always be assumed the audience hasn’t read the literature in question. Now I myself haven’t read the novel so I’m unable to comment on the related particulars and how they stack up alongside the film itself. Just by the nature of the story however, it seems clear that the text has been followed, but with a lot of quick turns added and holes dug to keep everyone guessing, to the extent that it’s all a little too much at times.
The good thing however, helped by the fact that everything is beautifully filmed and scored (a welcome shout out to thrice time PTA collaborator Jonny Greenwood) – with rich colour following rich texture following rich environment – is that, in the grand scheme of things, PTA just about manages to guide us through events with enough instantaneous style, atmosphere, uppers, downers, laughs and paranoia, without completely losing his audience story-wise at any particular stage. Regardless of temporary plot confusion, the characters always pull you back in. Knowing PTA he would have recognised exactly what he was doing and had no qualms with it, as permanent directional class permits one to play with temporary quality, which, in turn, goes a long way to allowing a filmmaker to do pretty much whatever they want in Hollywood, regardless of the town’s hit-and-miss nature (see also: Lynch, Tarantino et al.). Overall Inherent Vice feels like a recreational benzo trip; generally awesome with tinges of regret afterward, but on the whole a hazy bubble that pops somewhere between pointless decadence and memorable satisfaction.
In short, watch it. But if you’re new to PTA, make sure to catch up on his back catalogue either immediately before or immediately after, or it might appear a fun yet overly (rather than just slightly) senseless endeavour.
Peace, bad man.