Friday, January 23, 2015
INHERENT VICE review
"Inherent Vice" has an unfair advantage when compared to other films that I review. I have seen "Inherent Vice" two times in the past few weeks. Why? Because I had to. I have never felt so utterly compelled to see a movie again after finishing it, but "IV" is a different story. This is the first ever movie adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and by all accounts, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was as faithful to the source material as possible. So what does that mean? Given just how dense your typical Pynchon novel is, and how maddening it can be to attempt to finish one of his books, I knew I had to dive back in to "Inherent Vice" as soon as it was over.
And look, I wouldn't watch a film for a second time simply because I felt like I had to. I actually found a lot to enjoy the first time I watched the film, so going back to the well was not a difficult thing for me to do. I love this world. What Paul Thomas Anderson has proven, time and time again, is that he's very meticulous and detailed when he makes a period film. And the setting of "Inherent Vice" is a very fun one: Southern California in the year 1970. How can you resist the temptation of going back?
Sure, many people can. In fact, many people have decided to avoid seeing "Inherent Vice" altogether. Some have seen it and reacted unfavorably to it. Hey, I get it. I'm a huge PT Anderson fan, but there were definitely times where I was scratching my head the first time watching this movie. But you know what? The humor is there. The craft is very much apparent. The performances are outstanding. I recognized that from the get-go. What I came to find out upon a second viewing is that the movie actually flows very well. You thought "IV" was slow the first time you watched it? See it again. It's really not. It just doesn't move the way you want it to on that initial viewing.
"Inherent Vice" is, at least on the surface, a detective film. It centers on Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private dick whose former flame needs his help finding real estate mogul Micky Wolfmann. This sends Doc on a whirlwind of mystery, intrigue, conspiracies... add drugs to the mix, secret societies, and a straight-laced, humorless police officer by the name of "Bigfoot" Bjorensen (Josh Brolin) and you have got yourself a movie with a lot on its plate.
There's just a lot going on in this movie. And the problem for most people, like me at first, is that I spent so much time during the initial viewing trying to piece together what was going on. Naturally, the first time you watch a movie, you want to follow everything that's happening as it's happening. It's hard to just watch a movie scene-by-scene and allow the film to unfold in front of you.
No, Paul Thomas Anderson does not make it easy that first time, but he's adapting Pynchon. Nothing's ever easy with Pynchon. Second time around, however, once I was more aware of the pacing of the movie, more familiar with the characters... once I became more in tune with the film, suddenly I wasn't so concerned with plot details. After all, there's so much "plot" going on here. There's so much to this entire story. How could you ever expect yourself to get everything in one sitting?
And guess what? When I stopped concerning myself so much with the plot of this film, I actually began to understand what was going on much more easily. This is a movie that's best enjoyed on a scene-by-scene basis. And then, by the end, it all just kind of... adds up. And for me, it all added up beautifully.
Ok, I'm going on the uber-defensive because I really enjoyed the film. I came around to it big time on the second viewing and it sucks because that's really the only way you can come around to a movie as weird as this one. "Inherent Vice" is simply a weird movie. At first, you could argue that it's trying to do too much at once, but a second glance will make you realize that you were the one trying to do too much at once. "IV" is simply a movie where you have to trust that it's all going to work out at the end. Trust Paul Thomas Anderson. Trust Pynchon. Trust these actors. Don't worry so much. It'll be ok.
See, you have Doc Sportello. And you have Shasta Fey-Hepworth. You have Mickey Wolfmann. Wolfmann's rich, he's building a new real estate development called Channel View Estates. But Wolfmann has recently gone missing and Shasta, Mickey's latest mistress, has sent Doc to go find him. Now what happens to Doc after this? He learns of Mickey's affiliation with a gang called The Aryan Brotherhood. Then he learns about "The Golden Fang," where we soon realize that this "Golden Fang" organization is behind Wolfmann's kidnapping. Reportedly, they've been pumping heroin into the streets, allowing hippies to get hooked on the smack. And they run a very elaborate operation where everything's connected for their financial benefit. They're behind a team of dentists who've banded together on a tax dodge. Heroin is notorious for ruining teeth so the hippies get hooked on heroin, their teeth are ruined due to a loss of calcium, and they visit the Golden Fang Dentists to get their teeth fixed. Furthermore, they're also behind an insane asylum, which also benefits from bringing in patients formerly hooked on smack.
I'll stop right there. Now that's a lot to take in all at once, right? I barely scratched the surface too. Again, this is very dense material, but when you dive in a second time with an idea of what to expect, and when you let the density unfold in front of you, the film becomes a very rich and rewarding experience. There's so, so much to this movie. It's littered with all these wonderful, juicy conspiracies. Is Nixon behind The Golden Fang? Did the government introduce heroin into the streets to get rid of the hippie movement? There's even a brief spiel about an actor named Burke Stodger and how he fits into the entire operation. An actor who was formerly associated with communism, kidnapped by The Golden Fang, and then became a staunch capitalist. Crazy shit.
"Inherent Vice" is about the things we can't control. Like time, for instance. It's 1970. Times, in the world of "IV," are very much changing. The malevolence of the Manson family created a fear towards hippies and they were promptly eliminated, according to Pynchon. For a brief time in the late '60s, peace and love were being celebrated and promoted throughout the country and that was all shut down by the early '70s. Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison were all dead by 1971, all from heroin overdoses by the way. Those of us who weren't alive during this era may have thought of the hippie movement as being some sort of fad. Pynchon proposes this question: what if it wasn't? What if there was someone behind the dissipation of the movement? For the sake of drama and a juicy novel, this all makes for some pretty fascinating stuff even if it may seem a little crazy.
But the underlying thing, I think Pynchon and PT Anderson have showed a real affinity for this era and "Inherent Vice" is kind of a love note to the era and a lamentation of the times that slipped by that we cannot bring back. It's all in the character of Shasta. Doc and Shasta are probably toxic together, but Doc is in love with the idea of her and wants her back. But the Shasta of 1970 isn't the Shasta of 1967, and for Doc, that is very hard to reconcile. The times have changed. He's different, Shasta's different. The world they live in is different and there's no going back. Hell, the hippie movement is dying by the time we enter Doc's world, yet he still clings to the fashion as if it's the only thing he has left. As if it's the only thing he can control.
This is some pretty beautiful and haunting stuff. And I cannot express enough just how blown away I am that Paul Thomas Anderson was able to pull this adaptation off. Pynchon hadn't been adapted before because no other filmmaker had the brass balls to tackle him. PTA did. And while it may wear itself out a little thin over the course of its 148 minutes and it may not always be 100% tonally consistent at times, this is an extraordinary effort from one of America's very best filmmakers. And why do I call him that? Because he repeatedly finds himself stepping outside his comfort zone and coming out looking completely new and fresh. Nobody makes the types of movies he's making. There's nothing like "The Master" or "Inherent Vice" right now. Many have commented on the similarities between "IV" and "The Big Lebowski," and while they're definitely comparable, they're entirely separate beasts.
I haven't even talked about the unique look of the film, which is largely thanks to Robert Elswit, the DP. Between he and PTA, they have given the film a real graininess. A real haziness. No example could be better than Doc's meeting with Coy Harligen (Owen Wilson) in the fog. There's just a very immediate feel to "Inherent Vice" as if it's been cut from the cloth that is 1970. Add a little more graininess, shoot via technicolor, and this could've very well have been made in 1970. It's that close to the era, it's incredible.
I really can't say enough about this film. It may not be my very favorite from PT Anderson at this point, but this is a movie that I will revisit again and again. I hope you do too. See it twice. See it several times!