“A First-Class Head-Scratcher”
Thanks to Roadshow Films we had the chance to see Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Inherent Vice before its Australian cinematic release. This is our review of the film, but – as usual – no matter what we say, we recommend that you still go to your local cinema and see the film because there is no better critic than yourself.
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s seventh feature as screenwriter and director, Inherent Vice, is a weird, glorious headache of a film. The movie tells the hard-boiled (and very baked) tale of hippie private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and his nutty investigation into the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend, the free-spirited Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Operating barefoot and perpetually blazed out of a (very mellow) medical practice in a beach town in 1970s Los Angeles, Doc takes on a series of jobs that all somehow circle back to his big case, unearthing links between Shasta Fay’s dubious billionaire boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and the Aryan Brotherhood, a sinister secret society and a mysterious ship known as the Golden Fang. In his search, Doc gets tangled up in the activities of a ruthless loan shark (Peter McRobbie) and the depraved doings of a wildly unethical dentist (Martin Short), as well as becoming implicated in the machinations of his sometimes-ally on the police force, Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
With Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson (the supremely gifted and eminently film-literate auteur behind modern classics such as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) has created a stupidly gripping screen version of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 detective story. It’s a dazzling, incoherent wreck of a hyper-real neo-noir, and Anderson’s first movie since 2002’s Punch Drunk Love which can be, with some confidence, identified as an all-out comedy. Jam-packed with quirk and exceedingly bitey dialogue, the film is a mad collage of bizarre subplots, disjointed gags and scenery-devouring cameos, with more than a few passing references to Joel and Ethan Coens’ The Big Lebowski.
Running at a very leisurely two-and-a-half hours, the movie is indulgent and muddled and often exhausting in its relentlessly digressive storytelling style. Staggeringly convoluted, the entire thing is undoubtedly a full-scale prank on cinemagoers: a snowballing assault on the senses that sends its audience spiraling down a rabbit-hole lined with red herrings, outrageous side characters and excessively kooky loose ends.
Joaquin Phoenix is ideal as the bloodshot private eye at the centre of the avalanching plot, while Josh Brolin is positively simian as meathead Lt. Detective Bigfoot. The movie also serves up a supporting cast of abundantly familiar screen faces, which show up unexpectedly and often in very odd places. Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro are given only a handful of scenes to do their thing, and blink and you’ll miss Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph and Michael Kenneth Williams (who will be familiar to many audiences as The Wire’s Omar Little).
Inherent Vice has a deliberately ragged look, with long, slow dissolves and tactfully overexposed shots that effectively reproduce the hazy 1970s L.A. setting, as well as seemingly random swings in visual style that contribute to the movie’s off-balance atmosphere. Robert Elswit’s gorgeously smoky cinematography picks out acute low angles and swoops around in long tracking shots that elevate the almost pulpy narrative material to the level of cinematic art. Great costuming and an expertly-selected period soundtrack complete the look and feel of the film.
Inherent Vice is a movie to puzzle over. It’s an obscene, rambling, off-the-wall head-scratcher that gets way more baked than The Big Lebowski ever did. Once the dust has settled, it becomes apparent that the film has taken a ludicrously long-winded detour through beachside mansions and secret brothels and insane asylums, to arrive at… nowhere much. It’s an inspired mess of a movie and an entertaining waste of some exceptional talent – but with unmistakable flashes of first-class movie magic.
Inherent Vice opens in Australian cinemas 12 March 2015