More than most other contemporary filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson has ensured an expectation of brilliance reserved for a rare few across cinematic history, Kubrick the most immediate example. That’s made the practice of wild anticipation possibly too easy to marinate oneself in, particularly considering Anderson’s one of the more unapologetically self-indulgent auteurs working today, largely without failure. His last two films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, met divisive receptions for carrying his signature style into darker, more psychologically tormented territory. With Inherent Vice he ostensibly steps back into the realm of broad comic appeal, seemingly akin to his early work, but seems to be exploring it with a complete stylistic about-face which will have some devotees fascinated by the new turn and others feeling abandoned.
Though I can still say I’d follow P.T. Anderson anywhere, I can’t honestly say I’m able to after seeing Inherent Vice, a hazy, frenzied, intoxicated detective caper that takes full advantage of its late-60s setting to plant us in the incoherent head space of the time. It begins the same way The Master did, but in a wholly different register: instead of waves operatically drifting away, the waters flowing into the beaches of 1970 Los Angeles, CA. Joaquin Phoenix again plays a lost, lonely individual, though it’s clear from the onset that Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello isn’t marred by the post-WWII social dysfunctions Freddie Quell was quite chronically seized by. To counter Quell’s experimental alcoholism, Sportello keeps himself consistently doped up, without which he might not find the frenetic energy to face the world as nonchalantly, not to mention nonsensically, as he does.
And much has changed over the course of a decade. The period of healing is over, or at least nobody’s worrying about fixing themselves anymore. Doc’s channel into the infinite array of bizarre characters is ex-girlfriend Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), dressed like the luxuriated babe of a billionaire, which Doc recalls her saying she’d never look like. Her apparent sadness is one of many evident signs she’s not accommodating perfectly to the non-doper lifestyle. Said billionaire boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann seems to be caught in a scheme by his wife Sloane Wolfmann and Sloane’s boyfriend Riggs Warbling to be thrown into the looney bin. It’s a simple enough deranged conspiracy that rapidly expands in all directions and into every manner of morally questionable societal orifice.
As Doc’s case expands to include a gang of neo-Nazis, government corruption and manipulation of civilians, supply-and-demand controlling capitalism, and lord only knows what else, reinforcements are called in from every branch. There’s doc’s occasional fling, deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (an frigidly unamused Reese Witherspoon), as well as maritime law enforcer Sauncho Smilax (Benecio Del Toro). As he requires more leeway to investigate – not referring to his secretary Petunia Leeway, played by Anderson’s wife Maya Rudolph – he must begrudgingly work with and against Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a bulldog-looking, hippie hating detective with pipe-dreams of stardom, regardless of his refusal of the pipe.
And yes, I may have just rattled off that thick description for the chief joy of reciting the sublimely ludicrous character names. As much should be expected from the first screen adaptation from densely detailed pulp novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose voice is the most preserved in the translation to screen. Anderson’s quite devoutly translated the tempo and feel of Pynchon’s writing to the screen, though arguably at the cost of his own unmistakable poetic signature. It feels like there’s more front-to-back talk in Inherent Vice than in the rest of Anderson’s combined filmography, any moment where Doc isn’t pedantically bantering about his remarkably sound crackpot theories being filled by Joanna Newsom’s ethereal narration, adding a further verbal haze onto a world where our interpretations of events is already foggy.
“Thinking comes later,” Doc says early on, but if you’re trying to sensorially unpack the film in the way The Master called for, you may find the film repeatedly slipping out of your hands. Returning D.P. Robert Elswit rarely makes any formal reaches, keeping the aesthetic flat and fairly sludge-coated, as though we’re watching a poorly aged print of 60s noir. Even when the characters aren’t doping up, you can feel a layer of smoke in the air. It’s admirably unpretty work, but which allows the rare inspired compositions to pop out at crucial moments. A key example comes when Doc and Shasta engage in a seemingly asinine conversation that becomes very emotionally and sexually heated very quickly. It’s these brief moments of emotional rapture that retain Anderson’s overwhelmingly emotional signature amidst his most sedate film to date.
If we’re walking through a dense fog through most of the film, it’s the occasional snatches of lucidity that bring it back to pulsating life, usually in a riotous fashion. Anderson’s citation of the Zucker Bros. being an influence may suggest a more all-out blast of looney silliness, but you have to cough through the smoke to get out the laughs. Contrasting its ostensibly broad appeal, Inherent Vice feels the more like an auteur’s piece than any other of Anderson’s films. It requires a certain level of thoughtful dedication to his vision that few beyond his most professed followers will manage. It’s not as immediately accessible as his previous films, which made this viewer feel, for once, like the film’s events and meanings had no sway on her.
That’s not to say there isn’t some brilliance to his storytelling. He manages to weave characters arcs in such ways that raise an incontrovertible melancholy that’s present from the onset, but rarely called notice to. Brolin’s Bjornsen becomes a particularly interesting figure in this regard towards the end, his acquiescing to conventional societal ideals out of step with his own hulking volatility. “I’m not your brother,” he says in his final scene, to which Doc replies “No, but you sure as hell need a keeper.” If a stunning film exists in this hot-and-cold, shaggy trip of the film, it’s in such moments as these, when Doc is blissed out and unaware of how meaningful his words really are. It’s not until the smoke settles that these characters will realize what in there lives truly matter to them. Till then, it’s a long, comfortable high, though one that perhaps counter-intuitively numbs the resonant lows.