Film Grains: Inherent Vice (2014)

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Anticipation:    5/5      Any new Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) film is an event.

Final Verdict:    3.5/5      Stellar cast performances can’t keep the film from being a little dull.

The opening shot of the film is two houses that are separated by a road that leads to an inviting beachfront.  The shot foreshadows the divided opinion people will have about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.  The voiceover starts, Sortilege, Larry “Doc” Sportello’s assistant, describes Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fey Hepworth, as though she were describing a contemporary hallucination of a past memory.  Shasta hires Doc, a pot-smoking private investigator, to keep her current boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann, a real-estate supremo, safe from the FBI and his wife who wants him committed.  After Doc realizes that Wolfmann is actually missing, he investigates the web of Wolfmann’s connections that weave a heroin cartel, warring biker gangs, a drug-lord/dentist who is trying to seduce an heiress, all of whom lead back to a corrupt cop, whose dead partner had connections to the cartel, and a bunch of other characters that add more confusion to Thomas Pynchon‘s muddled mess of a stoner neo-noir set at the intersection of the Idealism/Spirituality of hippie culture and the Realism/Secularity of modern capitalist society.

At the center of the intersection is hippie/PI, Doc Sportello. Sportello’s nickname “Doc” and his private investigator’s office, curiously placed in a Medical Center, become the lenses through which the film is to be viewed. A Medical Center houses specialists who individuals consult in search of solutions, mostly prescribed drugs, to heal their illnesses. In this case, as a private investigator, Doc specializes in curing the illnesses outside the body; his patients’ problems lie in everyday society. But what happens when the situation is generalized, when the disease seems to spread? In other words, what happens when Doc realizes that the connections keep piling up and that he may be in over his head, that he has no cure for the condition that is affecting everyone who is intertwined in the mystery of the Golden Fang? He does what any doctor would do: prescribe more drugs, such as the occasional hit of nitrous oxide, cocaine and copious amounts of weed, for his long list of ‘patients,’ not to mention himself, to see if a moment of clarity can be salvaged amidst the cloud of smoke left by burning roaches. But, more drugs lead to more complications for Doc.

However, the complications do not just pile up for Doc. As eager as I was for PTA’s latest, Inherent Vice‘s patchouli-drenched lure was not attractive the first time ‘round, but may become an acquired taste with multiple viewings. And yet, the issue is not the film.  It is the story.  There are too many characters and plot twists you are not given time to care for, even though Inherent Vice runs a brutal two hours and thirty minutes.  It feels as though edited by a stoner (which is the idea). In adapting Inherent Vice, PTA’s interest is not in tying up Pynchon’s loose ends, it is rendering the most accurate translation of Pynchon’s fiction, namely disregard of actual plot, leave storylines unresolved, refuse to develop characters, which sums up to an audience getting no answers. To anyone who enjoys Pynchon, it’s perfect. But, as a PTA fan, the disappointment comes from the director being a slave to someone else’s work rather than using the work or story to put forth his own ideas as with There Will Be Blood or Punch-Drunk Love.

I do, however, admire PTA for sticking to his Inherent Vice project.  I appreciate his admiration for Pynchon’s work and the effort put forth to make the audience feel as stoned and confused as Doc Sportello himself.  The conversations between stoners in the film couldn’t be closer to reality. The direction is fantastic. The shots are wonderful, the sets are beautiful and the mood is perfect.  Joaquin Phoenix is phenomenal as Doc Sportello. Josh Brolin and Martin Short are equally exceptional as ‘Big Foot’ Bjornsen and Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, respectively.  All three performances are nuanced to their characters’ most minute mannerisms, but it is Phoenix’s acting that transports our curiosity across the film.  The story is just plain boring.  In that vein, I tend to agree with USA Today critic Claudia Puig: “Think of it as a film that is meant to be experienced, more than fully understood.” I do not need to understand everything in a film to make it pleasant, but as far as experience goes, nodding off should not enter the equation.

 

 

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