Saturday, February 7, 2015

Inherent Vice


















INHERENT VICE          B-                
USA  (148 mi)  2014  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson         Official site

He is everything.  He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.  He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor…He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all.  He is a common man, or he could not go among common people.  He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.  He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.  He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. . . . The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.

—Raymond Chandler essay, The Simple Art of Murder, 1944

Stoner silliness?  Is that enough for most movie audiences today?  David Gordon Green made a slip into these kinds of lame, air-headed pot movies with mixed results, as he discovered an entirely new mainstream audience that was willing to pay for the laughs while alienating his hard corps art film admirers who had been with him since the beginning.  Green, who created the prototype of American indie films with George Washington (2000) and ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003) has returned to his roots of late, but not until after making a cash killing in Hollywood with the commercially successful PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008).  Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, a heralded American director of some repute who has dazzled audiences with the likes of MAGNOLIA (1999) and There Will Be Blood (2007), but has also disappointed many of his own followers with the rambling vacuousness of The Master (2012), a film that plunges over the edge into nothing of real significance, where there’s barely a hint of human drama holding our attention, yet it’s filmed in an epic style.  INHERENT VICE is a $20 – 30 million dollar picture (including an expensive awards campaign) that has generated less than $8 million dollars at the box office and garnered only two Oscar nominations, for writer/director Anderson in the Best Adapted Screenplay and also Best Costume Design.  All of Anderson’s pictures have moments of brilliance, where even if they tend to alienate the audience, a criticism of all his recent efforts, they are exceptionally well made and look positively terrific on the screen.  Adapted from the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, Anderson probably deserves special recognition for turning this seemingly impossible to film book into a motion picture, as nobody has turned a Pynchon book into a movie before, where he started working on a script in December 2010 while still working on The Master, developing several variations through a series of scripts, playing around with the idea of the narrator.  When the novel was released, one of the shortest and quickest written over the course of his entire career, it was advertised by the publisher as “part-noir, part-psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon—private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.” 

The free wheeling, drug-oriented style of the movie, which features more onscreen pot smoking since the Cheech & Chong movies of the 70’s and 80’s, but the zany irreverence expressed throughout is closer to John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), where the wisecracking and always quotable Kurt Russell is replaced by the counterculture world of residential pothead Joaquin Phoenix, the constantly high, smart aleck private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello living in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County in the 1970’s, where he seems defined by the expression, “What I lack in al-titude, I make up for in at-titude.”  Immersed in a world where he’s the center of a 40’s style, hard-boiled detective story, it feels like most of the film is taking place in the pot-induced fantasies of his head, where the wish fulfillment aspect is everpresent, as Doc is constantly in demand, for some reason, even by startlingly attractive ladies, through his inability to take anything seriously and his perpetual disinterest in the lives of others seems to define his warped aura of self-obsession and delusion.  Nonetheless, certainly part of the fun is just getting to know the Southern California landscape, where just the list of the character’s names feels like they could easily have been stolen from a Fu Manchu B-movie, and indeed the Chinese underworld, as expressed by a vast and secretive organization known as the Golden Fang, figures prominently here, where their reach spreads everywhere, into every dark corner of the film.  When Doc attempts to warn someone that “This is the Golden Fang you’re about to rip off here, man,” he’s startled by the dismissive nature of the reply, “That’s according to your own delusional system.”  What’s real and what isn’t?—it hardly matters in this sprawling universe of pop culture references, where Doc is a healthy mix of “The Dude” from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) and Elliot Gould’s reinvented “Marlowe” from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman’s subversive 70’s update of the conventional 40’s film noir.  Anderson’s drug-fueled detective story features psychedelic music and the grainy cinematography of Robert Elswit, who has shot every one of Anderson’s films, luring the audience into the near wordless, atmospheric mood with the extraordinary opening mix of CAN - Vitamin C - YouTube (3:32) and Can-Soup (Full Song) - YouTube (9:21).

Both hilarious and at times confounding, the film takes place in the fictional setting of Gordita Beach, a stand-in for Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon most likely lived in the late 60’s and early 70’s, lying on the south end of the Santa Monica Bay.  In 1970, Nixon’s in the White House, Ronald Reagan is Governor of California, while Charles Manson and his Helter Skelter cult of stoned-out groupies are about to go on trial for their hideous exhibition of mass murder.  Whatever lingering hopes might be left over from the peace and love generation of the 60’s have been brutally repressed by a crush of demonstrations, the arrests, killings, and near extinction of the Black Panther Party, a prolonged war overseas in Vietnam, and the prevalence of a law and order police state in Los Angeles. While the plot machinations are ridiculously circuitous, keeping the audience wondering just who Doc is working for, as he continues to get hired even while still working his previous cases, where the intertwining activity is simply off the charts and too much to keep up with, taking a page out of THE BIG SLEEP (1946), notorious for offering one of the most incomprehensible plots, as Doc just gets deeper and deeper into some big shit.  It all begins with the arrival of an ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), Inherent Vice - 'Shasta Fay' [HD (1:07), currently having an affair with a high profile real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), mostly seen on stupid-as-hell ads shown continuously on TV.  Word has it that Mickey’s British wife Sloane Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas) is having an affair of her own with international playboy-of-the-month Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson), where both have designs of scamming Mickey out of his money by having him committed to a mental asylum.  Meanwhile, local Black Nationalist Tariq Kahl (Michael Kenneth Williams) wants to hire Doc to recover money owed to him by one of Mickey’s white supremacist bodyguards, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), in some unfinished business that goes back when both were in prison together.  When Mickey goes missing (along with Shasta) and Charlock ends up dead, his body laying next to Doc who wakes up after being knocked out cold, that makes him the principal suspect on the case, where he has to explain himself to Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), described by the narrator as “SAG member, John Wayne walk, flat top of Flintstone proportions and that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations,” Doc’s right-wing, conservative counterpart on the LAPD, Inherent Vice "what's exactly the beef here" scene - YouTube (1:05), the man chiefly responsible for some serious police harassment, bad vibes and a cloud of paranoia hovering over Doc wherever he goes.  And if this was not enough, Doc is hired yet again by Hope Harlington (Jena Malone), a former heroin addict who wants her husband back, Coy (Owen Wilson), a sax player who feigned his death to avoid insurmountable debts, where a mysterious payment received “after” his death leads her to believe he is still alive. 

At two and a half hours, the screwball comedy of stoner noir is an unending labyrinth of joint smoking, wrong turns, near misses, and dumfounding jokes and visual gags, but as long as the film is heading somewhere, following the neverending myriad of clues, an open-minded audience is willing to play along.  Perhaps the most peculiar variation from the novel is the use of a side character as the narrator, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who barely figures in the story, but always seems to be around Doc’s residence on the beach, like an alternate consciousness that makes sure he’s all right.  Not only does she appear to have an all-knowing and omniscient eye, but a direct line to the author as well, as she continually speaks his voice.  While it sounds like a kind of updated hipster slang from Raymond Chandler, it’s curious that Doc and Elliot Gould as Marlowe both end up peeking into the private grounds of an upscale sanitarium in search of their missing men.  Both detectives make their best attempts to solve the unraveling mystery, but even with insider help from the District Attorney’s office from an old flame Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), Inherent Vice I wanted to see if you were free for dinner scene (47 seconds), it all remains wrapped in a mystery, where there’s no nice and tidy conclusion, which makes it a lengthy journey for little to no payoff.  The entire film feels like a lead-up to a signature event, always leading to this expected crescendo, after which it’s mostly a let down.  Shasta returns from out of the fog and somehow rekindles whatever’s left of their distant love affair.  While it’s blown up into giant-sized close ups, the tone of the entire film changes, as does the seriousness of the music, becoming overly symphonic and dramatically downbeat, while up until then the music had been nothing but playful and enjoyable.  By the time it winds down, however, there’s an overall impression that nothing throughout the entire film has been learned or taken seriously, as if that is emblematic of the stoner experience, where it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. (“What a long, strange trip it’s been.”)  For many that will be enough, kind of an updated and reinvented version of Easy Rider (1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), counterculture films that took us to the end of the road and left us there.  Defining films for a morally divided generation, both were significant as drifter road movies that expressed a general aimlessness of the times, where the music was the message, and they were powerful indictments of a fed-up dissatisfaction with the broken dreams of 60’s aspirations, the corruption of moral authority, and the co-opting of the American Dream.  INHERENT VICE is an adrenaline-laced, sarcastic sneer at a mixed up society of diametrically opposed values that is on the verge of losing its bearings and visibly crumbling to its feet, within a few years of actually kicking out a President, turning into a long, wayward adventure that meanders through the heart of recognizable cultural signposts and ends in a listless waft of smoke, becoming a drifting love story that doesn’t really matter at all, as the audience doesn’t care about the love angle or any of the sketchy and mostly undeveloped characters, where a Paul Thomas Anderson film once again makes a grand entrance with a fancy build-up before fading into the nothingness of The Master, where many may feel let down by the existential pointlessness of it all. 

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