FRESH POUR: Inherent Vice (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Inherent Vice
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Warner Bros. Pictures

Paul Thomas Anderson’s no stranger to the strange – between the hep energy of Boogie Nights, the subtle sweetness of Punch-Drunk Love, and the one-two punch of minimalist dread that comprises There Will Be Blood and The Master, PTA’s films crackle with an originality and introspectiveness punctuated by his own wry, dark sense of humor. His latest, Inherent Vice, sees him adapting someone else’s material (the dense-yet-comparatively-approachable novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon), and his style adapts as a result. While there are some hiccups along the way, it’s a thoroughly crazy, off-kilter ride.

Inherent Vice is the first Pynchon novel to be adapted to the screen, and it’s easy to see why it took so long. Between its stylish-yet-impenetrable dialogue and even more opaque story, it would take a master of tone like P.T. Anderson to make it come to life. In the hands of a lesser director, it would see more overtly like the Big Lebowski-meets-Chinatown ripoff it appears to be in the first glimpses of its trailer. Luckily, Anderson has a bit more faith in us than that. The 70s kitsch permeating the film could easily turn into the slap-a-famous-actor-in-a-bad-wig senselessness that American Hustle turned out to be. Here, though, there’s a notable sense of melancholy that permeates the proceedings, grounding the drug-fueled world of 1970 California and all its pulp set dressing.

Joaquin Phoenix is a master (no pun intended) of the mumbly, tic-infused protagonist, making his “hippie dope fiend” PI “Doc” Sportello more of a variation on a theme than a genuine revelation. Still, this is probably the outright funniest Joaquin has been in a long time – all wigged-out sidelong glances, bug eyes, and twitchy, Harpo Marx-esque physicality, Phoenix makes Doc an eminently watchable and compelling focal point for the madness that surrounds him. Looking like a cross between Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe from The Long Goodbye (with which this film has many plot and thematic similarities) and Steven Hyde from That 70s Show, he’s a weirdo who navigates an even weirder world, a masterclass in drugged-out bewilderment. He never quite reaches the existential peace and tremendous pull of Jeff Bridges’ “The Dude,” but then again, Doc is much less centered than The Dude could ever hope to be.

The rest of the cast is pretty damn stellar too, especially Josh Brolin as a simmering beast of eccentricity and latent homoerotic energy, breaking down doors with the same steely gaze as he lovingly suckles upon a frozen chocolate banana on a stick. Newcomer Katherine Waterston approaches her few scenes with laser focus (especially one particularly enticing encounter with Doc near the end of the picture), though she isn’t in the film enough to make the kind of lasting impression she’s been receiving otherwise. Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon don’t get nearly the kind of showy, meaty theatrics as the rest of the cast, but they function adequately as the little people whose lives are interrupted or disrupted by the cartoon characters they are surrounded with.

Despite the incredible, compelling energy of the performances and the breezy, chill-out score from PTA regular Jonny Greenwood, there are a few hiccups that make it fall short of the director’s typical greatness. While the impenetrability of the script and its plot are purposeful, it can still be a bit of a struggle to keep up with who’s missing, who is selling drugs to whom, and what even some of the character’s real names are. The mumbly, half-spoken dialogue by Phoenix, Waterston and some of the other characters in some scenes don’t help with that coherence either. Then again, to focus on this as a rote detective story misses the point; it’s all about Doc and his attempts to reunite with Shasta, and simply survive the chaos that surrounds him. Also, I wasn’t super taken with Joanna Newsom’s incessant narration as the astrology-focused flower child Sortilege – it seemed to oversell the tone and attitude of the times, and stand in too directly for Doc’s own internal monologue.

Even with these minor structural problems, Inherent Vice is definitely a treat to watch and behold; it’s not the most sophisticated or heady of PTA’s work, but it’s nice to see him loosen up a little and have some fun again. Rather than work through a coherent mystery (the hazy memory and consciousness of its protagonist wouldn’t allow for it), PTA’s work explores a world of characters in transition between the dying hippie era and the rise of the establishment, offering California as a boiling point for all of these cultural anxieties. Through these arresting moments of melancholy, though, we’re having too much of a far-out blast watching Brolin suck down a plate of marijuana ashes, Martin Short prance around in an Austin Powers outfit as a drugged-out dentist, and watch Phoenix giggle and gape his way through another outlandish scenario. It’s definitely one of PTA’s more uneven films, but it offers a side of him we haven’t seen since Boogie Nights – the ability to smile through the sadness.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Inherent Vice:
1) Drink whenever someone uses hippie slang (‘groovy’, ‘far out’, etc.)
2) Drink any time Doc gives someone a wide-eyed, sidelong, bewildered glance
3) Drink every time Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) starts speaking in voiceover
Finish Your Drink When:
Doc and Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) finally speak at the same time.

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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