Friday, January 9, 2015

Inherent Vice

INHERENT VICE: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (148 min.)

I knew this was going to be a tall task, even for a director as gifted and, up to this point, as flawless as Paul Thomas Anderson.

I read Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice in 2013. At least I think I did. The book was open, my eyes fixated on the page, reading the words in front of me, but to try and remember anything I read would require a feat of recollection of which I am incapable. The book is a muddled stoner masterpiece to some, but to me it was simply incoherent, impossible to follow, not nearly as funny as everyone said. And yet, when I heard Anderson was directing a film adaptation, I figured if anyone could iron out the kinks of the novel and make an entertaining picture it would be Anderson. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

Inherent Vice is true to the roots of Pynchon's novel, which is its ultimate downfall. It captures the essence of the story, a pot-fueled post hippie California crime story that lives on the flip side of the film noir coin. The story's vessel, Larry "Doc" Sportello, a stoner private investigator played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, is put upon by an avalanche of shady and increasingly grating characters in this southern California, a land reeling from the Manson murders and adrift in the years after the hippie movement began to unravel. Doc's ex flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up at his house one night, delivering an ominous tale of her lover, her lover's wife, the wife's lover, and murder. None of it is very clear, and that is merely a harbinger of things to come.

Doc gets into, or falls into, the investigation surrounding Shasta's lover, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real-estate magnate who is nothing more than a human MacGuffin for the film. Wolfmann disappears, everyone wants to find him or one of his associates, a mysterious ship on the coast is brought in, women come and go... Along the way, Doc runs into characters on every corner of the hippie lunatic fringe. The oversexed, overmedicated, smoke filled crooks and miscreants drop their own little bits of information into Doc's clouded brain, thickening the investigation and confusing things even more.

There is Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, the flat-topped detective played by Josh Brolin, who takes joy in harassing the dirty hippie Doc. Reese Witherspoon shows up as an FBI informant, I think, who also enjoys slumming it with Doc to get a little high and watch political coverage on TV. There is Owen Wilson, who plays a heroin-addicted musician drawn into this convoluted plot of missing persons and shady real estate deals. Benicio Del Toro plays Doc's counselor of sorts, a casting choice I feel was deliberately made to harken back to Del Toro's turn as a whacked out lawyer to Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Martin Short plays a shipping magnate who enjoys cocaine and women, and none of them really even matter in the end.

Inherent Vice is meant to be seen as an episodic tale, a series of little vignettes that don't even make an effort to pay off in the end. Segments work individually, sometimes, and sometimes they go on much too long and the dialogue drowns into noise. Meant to be comedic most of the time, the laughs become increasingly sparse as the film drones on and on, well past two hours. Everyone does their best job with the characters they are given, a testament to Anderson as a director. But the film becomes an endurance test, losing steam rather than gaining.

I never knew what was going on in Inherent Vice, but I don't think the intention of anything in the film was to be clear. Anderson takes an un-filmable work, films it, and the result is about what one would expect.