Inherent Vice

inherent vice poster

As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a constant, raging hard-on for Paul Thomas Anderson and his work, to an extent, I’m afraid, that might make my critique of his newest film, Inherent Vice, rather more subjective than usual. Be that as it may, I really tried to go into the movie (I think I’ve seen it three times now) without too may preconceived notions or expectations—a futile effort, it transpires, as Inherent Vice is a film that defies all expectations before laughing in the face of that expectation and then slamming it’s head in a car door.

Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson, why do I love you so? In large part, I think it’s the way he consistently defies any traditionally held perceptions of who and what we think an otherwise archetypical character might be, and eschews any pretense as far as how you think a traditionally noir/romance/comedy/crime drama ought to work. And indeed, the film is all of these and more, somehow miraculously hitting the bulls-eye at every turn. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name and written for the screen by Anderson himself, Inherent Vice incorporates all the trademark humor (visual gags, one-liners, etc.) that we’ve come to expect from this legendary director. I have no reservations about calling the film one of the hands-down funniest of the year, and there’s an underlying element of pseudo-surrealism that flows throughout, which work in tandem to give the audience a kind of contact-high as they spend more and more time in the drug-crazed, neon-saturated underbelly of the fictional Gordita Beach, California.

The films stars Anderson-verse veteran Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s protagonist, drug-addled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello. Phoenix, playing what is essentially this generation’s version of “The Dude” perfectly pulls off the effortless yet slightly harassed affectation of a hapless hippie suddenly finding himself in a world of incredible violence that he doesn’t fully understand. Josh Brolin also makes an appearance as the raving-mad LAPD officer Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson and, in one of those instances that the audience can tell that the actors are having a really good time onscreen, the casting simply couldn’t be better. There are cameo appearances abound as well, including the always-excellent Benicio del Toro as the reliable yet eccentric Sauncho Smilax, Esq. as well as a memorable a surprising appearance by Martin Short as coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.

Inherent Vice is one of those movies that get better with age—and with multiple viewings. To suggest that the film is dense is an understatement, as there are often so many things happening in a single frame that scenes often get disorienting and overwhelming really quickly. In that respect, the jam-packed onscreen atmosphere serves to emphasize the tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic world that these characters are living in, without overburdening the audience with unnecessary expository dialogue. Anderson continues to be one of—if not my favorite—director because he’s a master the old cinematic storytelling essential, “show; don’t tell.” Accordingly, the film is visually stunning, as is to be expected with cinematographer Robert Elswit, having worked on every P.T. Anderson production to date, save Hard Eight.

The earlier comparison to The Big Lebowski was not made idly, either. Like the legendary Coen Brothers production, the plot of Inherent Vice is damn near impossible to follow upon your first viewing; thought like The Big Lebowski, the point of the film is not in the destination, but the journey. While I absolutely understand the frustration that some audience members may experience after having watched the film and feeling almost completely in the dark concerning the mystery the characters were supposed to be uncovering, I highly recommend that those folks go back and see the movie a second time, if the opportunity presents itself. There are so many nuances and details within details that one would have to watch the film a hundred times before worrying about it becoming stale, but the fact is that with every successive viewing, the appreciation for both Pynchon and Anderson’s storytelling chops will grow in equal proportion.

I could write volumes about how Inherent Vice is one of the most unique and engaging and just plain entertaining movies out right now, but, to be frank, this is one experience that you’re just going to have to see for yourself to believe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Broken City Review

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The social atmosphere in which Broken City finds itself upon release is one marked by a general antipathy towards the political sphere with the presidential elections in the US having recently concluded. The raw animosity and bitterness among politicians is, in some respects, infectious, especially after having been subjected to nearly an entire year of campaigning. It seems only natural that a film which centers around political conflict may wish to capitalize on American sensibilities during such a time. The denunciation of the whole “it’s legal if you don’t get caught” attitude of politicians is, although painfully safe, a sentiment that the vast majority of moviegoers can get behind.

Rejoining the cinematic fray after 3 years of inactivity is Book of Eli director Alan Hughes. Direction is, for the most part, solid, though nothing to write home about, with tight action sequences worthy of Taken or one of the Bourne movies. Worthy of note, however, is that Hughes and company seem to focusing much more on the “drama” aspect of this crime-drama, to the point where it becomes more reminiscent a courtroom thriller on television than the cinematic crime-dramas, usually bursting at the seams with action, that we’ve been accustomed to.

Starring, Mark Wahlberg, in the same role he’s been type cast for since day one, as the rough around the edges but ultimately lovable everyman Billy Taggart, as well as Russell Crowe portraying deliciously punchable baddie, Mayor Hostetler. Thankfully, Crowe proves that he can still act after his role in Le Mis, (which many took issue with, but I found to be perfectly serviceable) and steal every scene he’s in, even compared to Wahlberg’s own adequate but frankly bland performance. It is blandness, in many ways, that kills this otherwise quality production and which holds the power to make a potentially decent film bad and a potentially great film pretentious. But yes, I still think Joaquin Phoenix should win best actor.

Historically, Hughes has struggled enormously with the concept of incorporating subtlety into his films. In Book of Eli, for instance, the Macguffin purported to have the power to save civilization from the brink of collapse amid the post-apocalyptic ruin turns out to be a literal copy of the Bible. Any particular message you were trying to drive home there, sir? Likewise, the two-party election which serves as the backdrop for most of the conflict in the film is so heavy handed that we’re beaten mercilessly about the head and shoulders over what side we’re supposed to be on. Now, this isn’t such a bad thing in itself, but when the only other positive thing the film has going for it is Crowe’s Koch-esque, villainous swagger, I start to worry. Additionally, the plot point that eventually contributed to the film’s downfall is Taggart’s motivation for not getting the hell out of Dodge when he had the chance. As the situation gradually worsens, Taggart is left with literally no reason to stay in the city as he no longer has relationship obligations nor financial interests aside from professional curiosity, which can only take you so far when people are shooting at you. Are we supposed to simply chalk it up to sheer obstinate stupidity? When the protagonist can just as easily make himself scarce without any real loss, something has gone wrong.

I understand what Hughes was trying to do by shaking up the contemporary view of a crime drama, it’s just that it was a general failure. For all the things that the film does right, mainly with casting, I can’t invest myself in the the struggle onscreen when character motivation, which would have realistically added the necessarily crucial drama, are so muddled and incomprehensible. In the end, my faith in Crowe and Wahlberg remains justified, though my faith in Hughes’ team does not.