Movie Review: Inherent Vice (2014)- Auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’s Latest is a Satirical Embodiment of the Post-Noir 70s that is Humorously Absurd, Allegorically Resonant, and A Product of Nostalgia Filmmaking

inherentvice2Anyone who has ever read a Thomas Pynchon novel knows that it’s quite the daunting task as his ambitious storytelling is guided by an articulate yet passive prose that randomly maneuvers through an ethereal haze of eccentric characters, a detailed tapestry of literary influences, and a blend of varying expressionistic tones. These qualities sound vaguely similar in ambition if you consider the filmography of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson whose features ranging from Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master all possess a Pynchon level of complexity where numerous plot threads, cinematic references, and incredibly detailed characters all convene in one epic storytelling execution. Considering all of this it’s unsurprising that a Pynchon novel has yet to be adapted in full for the cinema and equally unsurprising that Paul Thomas Anderson would be the first director to attempt it with Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice which finds the auteur creating an incredibly funny, insightful, yet divisive piece of nostalgic cinema. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice are conceptually identical as this weirdly accurate adaptation blends private-eye satire with a deconstruction of the flower power hippie generation of the 60s due to the impending arrival of the anarchic paranoia of the 70s brought to us by Nixon, militant Black Panthers, Vietnam, and of course the psychotic exploits of the Manson cult. Inherent Vice might get lost in attempting to summarize all of its incongruent parts, but it’s done so in studied unconventional purpose where loose ends, distracting plot twists, and meditative scenes of eloquent nonsense are essential to the experience as the film merely becomes an embodiment of its nonsensical time and place. As you enter the dizzying rabbit hole of private-eyes, fascistic police detectives, Aryan Nation bodyguards, and even an underground Dentist tax shelter keep in mind that Paul Thomas Anderson’s mystery is only about the experience, a hilarious ride that poetically never reaches its destination. With a return to the comedic spirit of Boogie Nights combined with the masterful photographic touch developed from all of his endeavors from Hard Eight to There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson finds himself in his best form with Inherent Vice successfully adapting an unadaptable novel with cinematic confidence as the comedy, the characters, and the time period become the films timeless center pieces creating a true example of a bygone era of filmmaking.

Pynchon’s time capsule of the early 70s within Inherent Vice is fully captured in narrative detail by Anderson acting as screenwriter who carefully crafts a post-noir mystery set in a time where love has become an overused word. At the center of this enigmatic time of groovy ease and simmering violence is private-eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a protagonist that is present yet intangible, or a hero in an incoherent state attempting to make sense of an incoherent world around him. Doc as the guide to our unfolding mystery might not be the most reliable considering his slurry mumbling, his voracious intake of marijuana, and his sloppy investigation practices, but he’s all we have for the humorous better and confusing worst. He’s approached by an ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) who informs him of a conspiracy involving her lover’s wife, her lover’s wife’s boyfriend, and a scheme to place said lover in a mental institution to reap the financial rewards. This launches Doc through the layers of Los Angeles as if it were a hallucinatory dream, confronting surrealist characters such as a political in hiding musician (Owen Wilson), a vibrant drug-loving dentist (Martin Short), and a “walking civil rights violation” detective (Josh Brolin) in what becomes a puzzling quest for truth where resolution isn’t apparent. Paul Thomas Anderson’s script has a purpose in layering on the complexity as it becomes a visual interpretation of Pynchon’s original intention as a black satire of Raymond Chandler’s private-eye novels like The Big Sleep. And just like The Big Sleep, where not all of the loose ends were explained (such as the Chauffeur’s death), Inherent Vice takes that perplexity to an astonishing and hilarious degree where happenstance becomes the consistent method of solution. Though the tone is very similar to Boogie Nights there is a consistency to Inherent Vice’s narrative much closer to the antagonistic duality of There Will Be Blood and The Master where Doc and his nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen share a resemblance to the era’s fight between free love and law & order paranoia. Inherent Vice at its most basic is a farce, an absurd representation of post-noir cinematic style, a time of changing attitudes, and a deconstruction of mystery equates resolution expectation that all comes together through Paul Thomas Anderson’s directorial prowess.


It’s undeniable that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the only filmmakers reviving a long-forgotten style of cinema, especially here with Inherent Vice which has the grainy flickering tone of its 35mm print, a score that is definitive of the classic Hollywood feeling (thank collaborator Johnny Greenwood for that), and pioneering a return of long dramatic shots to the big screen. Clearly Anderson is invoking numerous cinematic influences of the post-noir 70s age, including the prostitution as big business mystery Klute, Polanski’s revisionist noir Chinatown, and of course Robert Altman’s previous deconstruction of Raymond Chandler’s work The Long Goodbye. And yet Inherent Vice, despite its deeply complex storylines, is on the basic level a satire with the outcome closely resembling the chaotic mystery of the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski as the immoral characters and deadpan humor bring a truth to the statement that Anderson utilized the influence of Airplane and The Naked Gun series created and humorously executed by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams in the 80s. The sly humor of it all comes out especially in scenes that have hardened detective Bigfoot outrageously fellating popsicles or coke-snorting dentist Dr. Blatnoyd dropping his pants as he leaves his office highlighting Inherent Vice’s intention to surrealistically lampoon its own existence. It seems as though Anderson’s film could have been lost in its cinematic influences, fractured unresolved narrative, and outlandish humor, but it all seems to unconventionally mesh into what could only be deemed a whole Paul Thomas Anderson film. Featuring his standard use of elongated uncut scenes, such as a six-minute post-sexual confession that erotically lingers and tightly pushes in on Shasta, Inherent Vice comes into its evocative and groovy existence in a way that only Anderson could envision. Collaborating cinematographer Robert Elswit has shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films thus far from the darkened gambling world of Hard Eight, to the florescent lit parties of Los Angeles in Boogie Nights, to the desert oil venturing landscapes of There Will Be Blood and he continues his visual eloquence in Inherent Vice that remains consistently Anderson while also embodying the gritty tone, close-up framing, and low angles of the 70s generation style. In its two hour twenty-eight minute running time Inherent Vice never fails to entertain through sheer absurdity, masterful technique, and of course a dedication of performance that makes this familiar yet mythical interpretation of the changing attitudes of the 70s so convincing.

Beyond the 70s aesthetic there needs to be a cast of characters that are completely convincing of the time and yet with the case of adapting Pynchon also need to possess their uniquely gripping eccentricities as they become the palpable entities that make a believable period satire. The casting of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films has always been stellar most likely due to his auteur sensibilities, but a drastic amount of credit can probably be given to his consistent casting director Cassandra Kulukundis who has been with the acclaimed director since Magnolia. Whether it’s creating a tapestry of distinguishably odd characters in Boogie Nights and Magnolia or capturing intense individual transformations in There Will Be Blood and Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson knows how to demand from his actors a convincing approach that accentuates his chosen visual surroundings. Returning from their collaboration on The Master is Joaquin Phoenix and his chameleonesque talents are entirely suited for escaping into the skin of entirely different characters, including his take on Doc Sportello which finds Phoenix in prime slurry form where his supine physicality is often outshined by his brotherly witticisms. Phoenix’s interpretation of Pynchon’s Doc as the most unreliable of detectives and protagonist guides in a completely confusing world seems so spot on that no one would even think twice that Robert Downey Jr. was originally supposed to play the role. However, rivaling Phoenix on every acting cylinder with equally absurd intensity is Josh Brolin as his dualistic counterpart Bigfoot Bjornsen, a performance that undoubtedly steals the show with preposterous hilarity. Throughout Inherent Vice each character is astoundingly detailed even in the brief moments they have on screen, whether it’s Martin Short as the coke snorting Dr. Blatnoyd or Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s some of the time girlfriend Penny or even Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s exceptionally shady lawyer. Even if some of the actors are more essential to the confusion than others, most notably Katherine Waterston as the anchor of human feeling and erotic tension for the film, each of the characters and their separated vignettes inevitably come together to create a believable mythological interpretation of an actual time and place.


Let it be known that incoherence is the defining feature of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Inherent Vice and not because it’s a disorganized mess but actually because it’s a purposeful execution of adaptation accuracy, cinematic homage, and a character based comedy. Thomas Pynchon’s novels have never lent themselves to narrative conventions so adapting the work with authentic detail and vigorous dedication meant that the result would undoubtedly be restlessly puzzling, or rather an enigma that constantly changes its answer after every guess. Attempting to make sense of this carnival mirror reflection of the changing attitudes of the 60s and 70s would be as futile as Doc actually attempting to solve a case which he only partially does due to accidental circumstance. Instead consider Inherent Vice an unconventional ride that transports you into the experiences of vibrant characters with a consistent undercurrent of ridiculous satire. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film insists on your undivided concentration through its leisurely paced ebb and flow so as to leave you with a perplexing sense of awe towards the nature of its existence, which in this case meaninglessness is a product by design. In the end Inherent Vice might be divisive, frustrating, and a bit peculiar, but when do truly inventive works ever appeal to the broadest of enjoyable standards?

Grade: A-

This title will be released December 12th

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