Saturday, January 17, 2015

Inherent Vice / **** (R)

Larry “Doc” Sportello: Joaquin Phoenix
Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen: Josh Brolin
Shasta Fay Hepworth: Katherine Waterston
Coy Harlingen: Owen Wilson
Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball: Reese Witherspoon
Saunxho Smilax, Esq: Benicio del Toro
Hope Harlingen: Jena Malone
Jade: Hong Chau
Sortilége: Joanna Newsom
Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S.: Martin Short

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon. Running time: 148 min. Rated R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence).

There is a misconception going around about Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie “Inherent Vice” that it is somehow similar to The Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski”. While both comedies center on a drug-addled character caught up in a noir plot the runs vastly out of their control, this is where the similarities between the two end. A better comparison for “Inherent Vice” might be to watching Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” as if you the audience were heavily sedated on barbiturates.

The key to the success of this unlikely approach to storytelling is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Doc, the equally unlikely hero P.I. dragged into a world of deception and manipulation in a pot—along with other narcotics—induced haze by an ex-girlfriend femme fatale. “Femme fatale” seems like too harsh a term for Shasta Fay Hepworth (newcomer Katherine Waterston), who at times finds herself in that same mellow haze of drug-induced affability as Doc, although there often seems more intention behind her affectations than his. However, that brings us to the most remarkable aspect of this film’s hero, his appearance of total cluelessness while intelligence lingers behind it all and somehow allows him to eke out the truth in this convoluted plot.

Although narration is provided by Joanna Newsome’s Sortilége character, it is Doc who remains the audience’s primary access into this world of shady real estate dealings, government conspiracies and personal vendettas. The audience remarkably shares the experience of Doc’s vague connections with the realities that surround him, making the mystery behind the disappearance of a high profile real estate tycoon (Eric Roberts) and his connection with a missing jazz mucisan (Owen Wilson) that much harder for us to grasp. Doc’s experience with his haze of confusion seems to help him cope with the confusion better than we can as an audience; but if we just go with it—as is often the case with a buzz—we’ll catch up.

Doc’s foil in his misadventures is super detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played with an alacrity equal to Doc’s bewilderment by Josh Brolin. Brolin redefines the “hard-nosed” detective character here with a zeal that goes beyond his career as a lawman, filtering into all Californian endeavors, including acting and even the very real estate market that functions as a key element in his investigation. His biggest passion, however, is the eradication of the hippie mindset, which he views with aggregate disgust. This brings Bigfoot into constant conflict with Doc, when in fact he’s quite willing to go well out of his way to interrupt Doc’s orbit.

As portrayed by Phoenix and Brolin, Doc and Bigfoot might just be one of the great cinematic couples of the ages. Their bantering and bickering, and the way in which all this leads each of them towards their goals in leaps and bounds they could never have accomplished on their own, makes them like a married couple. They peck at each other, sparking leaps of inspiration that catapult each into the next phase of the ever-expanding mystery that surrounds Doc’s life. Which one is the husband, and which the wife?

Whatever atmospheric elements aren’t covered in Paul Thomas Anderson’s expertly penned hazy adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s book, he more than makes up for in his stylish direction and pitch perfect early ‘70s period production design. From miniskirts a little too short to cover the lower female curves to wall-carpeted sex parlors, from Doc’s own carpeted chops to the fading beehive of Reese Witherspoon’s quaff as Doc’s insider in the DA’s office, Anderson submerges the audience into the groovy-turned-bummer world of the times, when backlash against the flower powering of the 60s is turning to the paranoid conspiracies of the Nixon Whitehouse. Only in this world can an artist be seduced into a career as a government spook when his only desire is to finally settle down with a wife and kid. Such are the changing times of American society. All the while, Doc just wants to be a good person and maybe get back with the love of his life.

“Inherent Vice” plays so much like 70s cinema, it makes me think of all the times us critics look at the films of that time period and say, “you could never make that movie today.” This movie proves that in a way you can. One thing about those movies is that they weren’t aware of their historical context within the worlds they depict. “Inherent Vice” is a running commentary on its own historical context, which in it’s own convoluted way makes it an even less likely movie to be made today. Yet here it is—just like Doc’s closeted intelligence—sitting right there under a cloud of marijuana confusion and sex-obsessed distraction. This is a masterpiece of another time.

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