Inherent Vice (2014)

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*. I wonder why Paul Thomas Anderson made this movie.
*. Specifically, I wonder why he wanted to make a movie out of Thomas Pynchon’s novel. To be sure Pynchon’s is a name to conjure with, especially among a certain demographic, but I don’t think a lot of people read him much any more. If they did they would have been less surprised by the emptiness of this film.
*. Here’s why I’m asking. Pynchon elegizes the historical moment: the sex, the drugs, and the music that made up doper culture at a time when shoeless hippiedom passed its watershed moment (cue the references to the Manson cult) and was about to be swept away by the forces of “fear and greed.” Musicians would sell out, drugs would get harder and more dangerous, and even sex would become a power game. The men wearing suits and ties and sporting precision haircuts would inherit the Earth.
*. Anderson seems aware of this theme, but either unable or uninterested in developing it. What he offers instead is an ironic rather than elegiac look back to 1970. And when I say “ironic” I mean groovy. I mean right on. I mean That ’70s Show. I mean we’ve stepped inside the time machine and moved laterally to hipster heaven.

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*. Inherent Vice, the novel, was a muddle but still had a moral and political point buried away in it somewhere. Inherent Vice, the film, settles for being a stoner comedy. Joaquin Phoenix, complete with magnificent mutton chops, is the (mostly) straight private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello, an island of semi-normalcy surrounded by the usual bunch of cameo zanies, sporting the usual ridiculous Pynchon names, who may or may or may not be associated with the usual Pynchon conspiracies. Doc’s world has gone mad, but in a funny way, and while it doesn’t make sense we know there will be a happy ending.
*. Anderson attempted to stay as close to the novel as possible, and did a sterling job in this regard. The dialogue, however, is often muttered and inaudible, while the plot is (as it always is in Pynchon) just one damn thing after another. This might be an attempt to say something about the paranoid style or it may be laziness. I’ve always leaned toward the latter.

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*. The oral sex leitmotif seems strained to me, and I didn’t think much of the subplot involving Owen Wilson. But if there are missteps here they can be ignored. Because, in the end, what’s important anyway? If you’re not sure what the point is, how can you say what’s a significant flaw or what is only a distraction from the larger theme?

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*. The cast is terrific. Phoenix is a bit hard to see as a P.I., but he does a blank, stunned look well, even to the point where we can believe that he’s actually considering which side of the Zig-Zag paper is sticky. Josh Brolin, Eric Roberts, and Martin Short all seem to have grown into parts that they are now being typecast in. Serena Scott Thomas is great in a mourning swimsuit and veil. But best of all is Katherine Waterston, who just crushes a scene (one of several impressive long takes) where she describes the sleepy surfer girl Shasta’s descent into submission. It’s one of the more erotic and sinister scenes I’ve ever seen, but ultimately I feel like it’s wasted here because Anderson isn’t sure what to make of it.

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*. It’s a polished film that finally doesn’t go anywhere. We are back in neo-noir territory, which has been a fruitful mythic landscape from Altman to the Coens but also a kind of critical quicksand or auteur comfort zone. It’s very much genre filmmaking and sticks to the conventions.
*. I enjoyed it and found it frustrating and disappointing at the same time. We’ve been here before, and not just in the pages of Pynchon. But “here” isn’t a real place, it’s a cartoon meta-verse of comic-book characters and clichés. That’s Pynchon’s world, but Pynchon also had a belief in the redemptive meaning of the ’70s that’s missing from this film. If I had to guess I’d say that maybe you had to be there.

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