Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice screened on Saturday as a Centerpiece presentation of the 52nd New York Film Festival. Warner Brothers will release the film theatrically on December 12.
What did I just watch? That was my most immediate response following the New York Film Festival premiere of Inherent Vice, and not in a dismissive, WTF sort of way. Paul Thomas Anderson has become the first filmmaker to adapt Thomas Pynchon to the big screen, and though I haven’t read Pynchon’s detective novel, (a.) now I want to and (b.) I doubt it would help. Someone at the press conference following the film asked about The Big Sleep, and it’s a pretty decent model for this movie’s entertaining impenetrability. Imagine a Big Sleep with a mumbly Joaquin Phoenix instead of the rock-steady Bogart and you might start to approximate the feel of this thing—though in the spirit of the movie’s central mysteries, you should then approximate something tangentially related and try to figure out how the two descriptions might be reconciled.
Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private eye who works out of a doctor’s office sporting a look you might more closely associate with a free clinic: bushy muttonchops, sunglasses, a long mass of tangled hair. The movie, sometimes narrated by Doc’s platonic buddy Sortilege (Joanna Newsom!), starts in earnest when Doc’s ex Shasta (Katherine Waterston) turns up at his home, asking him to look into a scheme to lock away the billionaire she’s been dating. Figures from this story start popping up all over, especially in Doc’s dealings with a cop nicknamed Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). This constitutes a “paranoia alert,” as Doc scribbles in his notebook (his fragmented notes are a delight). Characters go missing, turn up, head undercover. There are hints of real-estate California noir, but the whole thing has an “extra layer of fog,” as one character describes Doc’s marijuana-assisted impairment.
Doc spends much, possibly all, of the movie stoned (even when he heads home, he rarely appears to sleep, and the movie’s sense of time blurs together), and Inherent Vice certainly has a druggy rhythm to match that state of mind, but it doesn’t go full-on into Fear and Loathing territory where surrealism and silliness takes over and brushes away the story. Because it’s mostly just pot (well, mostly), the movie never turns fully hallucinatory; it’s cogent enough to follow on a scene by scene basis but I’ll be goddamned if I can tell you how or if any of the various story threads tie together. A stoner mystery with a lot of ins, outs, and what-have-yous: sounds kinda like The Big Lebowksi, right? But that isn’t quite right either; Vice‘s plot turns keep brushing off its more emotional connections until it becomes hard to suss out what Doc is actually investigating and why.
This could be alienating, but Phoenix remains capable of holding the screen even when his motives are opaque. His intense physicality from Anderson’s The Master has been reconfigured for slapstick—Doc has an understandably slow reaction time—and he tumbles through his investigation with knockabout conviction. Phoenix brings pathos, too, but Inherent Vice is Anderson’s most overtly comic movie since Punch-Drunk Love, and in many ways more traditionally comedic than that hilariously harrowing rom-com. Working with cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson designs ingenious sight gags based on shifting perspective and keeping key elements just out of frame, then releasing or revealing them for maximum impact. In more serious scenes, he strips those extra surprises away, letting two-shots play out with ultra-slow push-ins—sometimes barely detectable until you realize a medium shot has become a close-up.
Brolin is hilarious as a hippie-hating would-be supercop with Hollywood aspirations, one of the funniest and most menacing figures here. Most other members of the sprawling, talented cast have a guest-star feel—famous faces like Reese Witherspoon and Martin Short rotate in and out, doing a scene or two. (Pynchon also gives them all such “memorable” names, like Jeponica Fenway, Mickey Wolfmann, Coy Harlingen, and so on, that they’re perversely difficult to keep straight, especially when many characters are talked about more than seen.) Inherent Vice is both remarkable and a little frustrating for the way it turns itself into a foggy memory as it goes; minutes after it ended, I probably couldn’t have passed a test on the order in which some of its key scenes occurred. In a way, I had an easier time with The Master, because the raw emotion of that movie, and what it meant for its postwar milieu, was clearer than the plot of this one, and what Anderson is trying to say about the transition from the sixties into the seventies (it’s set in 1970). But difficulties with Inherent Vice, smuggled in with madcap scenes of Martin Short as a coke-snorting, philandering dentist or Brolin demanding additional pancakes at breakfast, are part of its weird charm. I know pot isn’t supposed to be addictive, but I wanted another hit of this one almost immediately.