There's something to be said for having such a distinct vision that no other mind could possibly produce the kinds of films that spring from that of one Paul Thomas Anderson. Yet, in creating such an insular, uninhabitable universe you're bound to alienate many who might otherwise find something to grasp for themselves in this world. Is it not the point of filmmaking to expose others to the kinds of worlds, people and stories you see as special? Perhaps the world of Inherent Vice will be within reach for some (probably not many) and if they manage to get something profound out of it, more power to them. For me, it worked in fits and starts, and though we are undeniably in the hands of a major talent, it still ends up ultimately frustrating, because of how much potential greatness there is in the scenes that do work.
P.T. Anderson went about the chore of adapting Thomas Pynchon's epic novel for this film, a neo-noir set in 1970 Los Angeles, right as the hippie scene was beginning to burn out. This is a counterculture world post-Manson murders and Nixon's election, and the feeling of entrenched atmosphere in this movie may well be the best thing about it. Joaquin Phoenix is a stoner PI who gets involved in a case at the behest of his former flame Shasta (newcomer Katherine Waterston), who appears to him in his shaggy wasteland of a living room, begging him to come to her aide, and then just as quickly disappears without a trace, leaving us to question whether she might ever have really been there at all. You question the reality of many of the events of this film, as Phoenix's character Doc Sportello (great name) spends virtually the entire time stoned and sometimes talking to an invisible (except to him) narrator, played by Joanna Newsom, whose baby-talk voice relays us a form of narration with words that border on meaningless in retrospect.
I can tell you right now that this plot is impossible to follow, so you might as well not even try. Most noirs dwell on overly complicated plots (famously, the screenwriter of The Big Sleep had no idea how his own story ended and didn't care), but this one takes the cake, as it spends excessively long scenes explaining details of characters and actions I could not keep track of, or know at any moment what anyone is talking about. The selling point is simply the moodiness and the post 60's paranoia and culture that permeates every frame- if it's possible to obtain a contact high from a film, this is the closest one comes to giving you that since at least 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. My advice is to let it wash over you and lose yourself in the period setting, spot on production design and far out costumes, not worrying about what's actually occurring onscreen, because if you do you're bound to be driven mad.
That may be the best way to experience this movie, but is that really the best way to go about making one? I'm not sure that the intent of any filmmaker can be to deliberately baffle and perplex his audience- at times I wished Anderson had thrown out the plot entirely and purposely languished in the moodiness, ala another classic neo-noir (and one of my favorite movies) Altman's The Long Goodbye, which this recalls in spots. And yet, buried within the fog of hallucination are some fantastic scenes, most having to do with Doc's still burning love for Shasta, who occasionally re-appears in flashbacks or hallucinatory conversations, to reignite their long lost love and ponder the meaning of what they were or could have been. This angle of the story is so profoundly beautiful and emotionally resonant that it makes you sit up and pay attention in a way the rest of the film demands that you not- and you're suddenly involved and engaged just as quickly as you're jerked back into a state of daze and confusion. It seems a shame in that sense- perhaps the slavish faithfulness to the book prevented a more cinematic focus that might have drawn Anderson's interest more than the incomprehensible plot details that seem designed to make eyes and ears glaze over, especially the longer they go on. But for the funny moments, the atmospheric detail, and the haunting love story buried deep in the heart of it, I do recommend Inherent Vice overall. Some of it is just too good to miss out on.
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