Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson (Screenplay) and Thomas Pynchon (Novel)
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, and many more.
Now Playing at the 52nd New York Film Festival
For a film to merit a positive review, must its plot be comprehensible? As I looked around at the squinted eyes and scrunched foreheads of my fellow critics at the recent New York Film Festival premiere of ‘Inherent Vice,’ it struck me that this was a crucial question.
Crucial because the plot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s labyrinthine, character-stuffed, stoned-out detective comedy is, quite simply, impossible to understand. Here’s my shot at a synopsis: Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a zonked 1970 pothead who somehow has a private detective’s license. Sporting an Afro and a set of muttonchops that would make Wolverine jealous, Doc stumbles from situation to situation and supporting character to supporting character, with everything and everyone somehow related to one vague central case.
A quarter of the way into the film, I stopped trying to sort out what was happening. Halfway in, I realized I wasn’t supposed to be trying. When the credits rolled, I wondered why the hell Paul Thomas Anderson, so expert at exploring theme and character with clarity and precision, had made a film that he didn’t want me or anyone else to follow. And in doing so, had he miscalculated?
The angel on my shoulder says yes: While plot need not be the most or even eighth most important aspect of a successful film (watch ‘Do the Right Thing’ if you don’t believe me), the audience still needs a foothold, some understanding of what’s going on. But the devil on my other shoulder says, “It depends. Coherence is a comfort, but perhaps it’s not always necessary.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to ‘The Big Sleep,’ Howard Hawks’s 1946 Raymond Chandler-based hardboiled detective classic. A predecessor to ‘Vice’ in structure if not tone, Anderson himself leaned on that film like a crutch during ‘Vice’s’ post-screening press conference. “I couldn’t follow any of it,” he said of ‘The Big Sleep.’ “It didn’t matter.” When he watched it, he just couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
Fair enough. ‘The Big Sleep’ boasts crisp, ping-pong dialogue. Its two leads, legendary husband-and-wife team Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, have sizzling chemistry. And Philip Marlowe, Bogart’s charismatic, too-clever-for-his-own-good gumshoe, is so determined to solve the case that you care about his mission, even when you’re straining to understand what that mission is.
But “Inherent Vice,” based on a 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel and written for the screen by Anderson, possesses roughly none of these redemptive qualities. The root of the problem is Doc. Where Marlowe is stubbornly invested, Doc is passionless and bewildered. It’s not Phoenix’s fault—he’s a versatile, emotive actor. In films like ‘The Immigrant’ and Anderson’s own ‘The Master,’ he’s conveyed mountains of rage, longing, and internal conflict with a mere twitch or sneer. One might question the wisdom of blanketing such an expressive actor with a thicket of facial hair, but the problems go deeper: Doc is thinly drawn and emotionally vacant. He’s not the twitching or sneering kind.
It didn’t have to be this way. In the film’s first and strongest scene, Doc cares about something, or at least someone. Isolated in his dingy beach house, his hair wild and untamable, Doc looks agonizingly alone, like he could drop dead and not be discovered for weeks. Then Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up. Beautiful and vulnerable, she looks on the verge of some great outpouring of emotion.
Shasta needs Doc’s help in getting to the bottom of a messy situation: She’s been sleeping with a powerful real estate mogul who’s now missing and may or may not have been kidnapped, and money’s involved, as is his wife, who has a boyfriend of her own and…Look, the point is, Doc cares. There’s enormous concern in his voice. While it’s not stated explicitly just yet, it’s clear that she’s his ex, and he’s still in love with her.
But Shasta goes missing shortly thereafter. I shouldn’t spoil whether she returns, but suffice it to say that she’s a vastly smaller presence in the film than one might have hoped. In her stead, the film unleashes a steady barrage of minor characters played by major celebrities: Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s on-again-off-again fuck-buddy! Benicio del Toro as his lawyer! Owen Wilson as some guy who’s faked his death for some reason! The list goes on. Few of these characters are fleshed out or complex. How could they be, when they get only a few short scenes apiece?
If Anderson had axed 90% of the supporting players and given Shasta a larger role, it might have helped matters. It would be one thing if Shasta continued to affect the film in her absence, hovering over the proceedings emotionally if not physically, Doc’s memory of her urgently guiding his actions. Unfortunately, the immediate what-and-where elements of the plot, scene after scene, are all-consuming: There’s little time for reflection or emotional continuity. Shasta is just gone, body and soul. Without her, Doc is a stupefied, shambling mess, stumbling from place to place, occasionally getting knocked out or tied up.
And he never seems to care too much. “That’s the point,” some might say. “It’s a reversal of the classic noir tropes. Anderson is flipping Philip Marlowe on his head and sticking a joint in his mouth.” Yes, I get it. But without a protagonist who cares about things, an intricate plot inevitably sags, flabby and unfocused. Even The Dude wanted his life to go back to normal so he could just fucking bowl already.
Speaking of ‘The Big Lebowski,’ whose loose, chaotic sprawl is a clear influence here, THAT film had something to say—even if that “something” was that it had absolutely nothing to say. As its narrator waxed philosophical about grand cycle-of-life themes that the film in no way explored, the message was clear: This movie wasn’t really about anything. But the Coens arrived at that theme with wit and clear intent. If ‘Vice’ haphazardly wanders toward similar thematic territory, it’s only by virtue of legitimately having few ideas.
The film does have a fine sense of humor. Many of the funniest moments come courtesy of the film’s best character, Josh Brolin’s Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Bigfoot is a crew-cutted, seemingly straight-laced detective with a hard-on for hippie-hating. Unlike most of the cast, Bigfoot has clear desires and distinct personality traits. He’s also funny as hell, sometimes unintentionally. In one scene, a horrified Doc watches Bigfoot eat/fellate an ice cream pop for what seems an eternity.
Random asides like the ice cream blowjob, or a scene where a group of Feds all pick their noses one after another as if some contagion has spread through the room, are the film’s best moments. They let you catch your breath and just laugh.
Cinematographer Robert Elswit, who deservedly won an Oscar for his aggressive, steeply-angled camerawork in ‘There Will Be Blood,’ is, as usual, on his game here. Elswit finds a way to make sweeping outdoor spaces claustrophobic, trapping Doc in an unforgiving desert landscape. And the scenes are often staged with careful symmetry. In one shot, a swarm of leather-clad, Harley-riding neo-Nazis—yes, there are Nazi bikers, because why the hell not?—ride head-on toward Doc’s car, splitting into two streams and swarming past the car menacingly on either side. Repeatedly and with flair, Anderson and Elswit visually emphasize just how in over his head Doc is.
Humor and visual aesthetic aside, ‘Inherent Vice’ is the weakest effort of Anderson’s tremendous career. Which leads me to one last question: How did this happen? No modern American filmmaker has a stronger track record of crafting unique, three-dimensional characters and embodying complex, thought-provoking ideas. Take ‘There Will Be Blood’s’ Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), an ambitious, determined oil tycoon whose capacity for decency and even sanity is drowned in the black sludge that makes him rich…Yet this, we come to understand, is exactly the type of man who built modern industrial America. Or take ‘The Master’s’ Freddie Quell (Phoenix again), an emotionally damaged, easily manipulated World War II veteran who falls under the thrall of a troubled religious charlatan. Desperate people, it seems, gravitate toward phony prophets—yet this dynamic leads to a perverse kind of social progress and coalition building, wherein the prophets need the followers just as much as the followers need the prophets…
Vast oversimplifications of extremely multilayered films. But you get the point. Anderson, at his best, is a provocative, brutally honest filmmaker, exposing people’s loftiest ambitions, deepest insecurities, and darkest impulses, all while insisting that those impulses drive our society, for better and worse. Characters and ideas. Watching “Inherent Vice,” I had the keen sense of a great filmmaker who had forgotten his strengths.
— David Teich