Friday, January 9, 2015

In Theaters: INHERENT VICE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Michael Kenneth Williams, Martin Donovan, Sacha Pieterse, Sam Jaeger, Timothy Simons, Jordan Christian Hearn, Hong Chau, Jeannie Berlin, Michelle Sinclair, Peter McRobbie, Keith Jardine, Andrew Simpson, Jefferson Mays, Christopher Allen Nelson. (R, 149 mins)

INHERENT VICE, Paul Thomas Anderson's long-planned adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's most accessible, commercial novel, is a wildly careening, frequently meandering shaggy-dog/stoner noir set in the fictional SoCal haven Gordita Beach in 1970. As it plays out, it certainly brings to mind what might happen if someone remade CHINATOWN with Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes replaced by Jeff Bridges' The Dude, or perhaps The Big Sleep if authored by Kurt Vonnegut. While INHERENT VICE has its share of laugh-out-loud scenes and quotable dialogue ("Molto panacaku!") and comparisons are perhaps inevitable, it's a much darker film than THE BIG LEBOWSKI, almost filled with as much somber sadness as absurdist humor. With its twisting, turning, labyrinthine plot at times akin to trying to watch THE TWO JAKES without ever seeing CHINATOWN, INHERENT VICE is likely to frustrate many moviegoers who think it's the wacky comedy the trailers and TV spots are selling.  It is, for the most part, but it's also distinctly the work of Anderson, the guy who gave audiences a cast sing-along and a storm of frogs at the end of the three-hour MAGNOLIA, a film they expected to be a Tom Cruise vehicle, and whose PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE had Adam Sandler fans demanding refunds when they realized it wasn't an Adam Sandler movie. You can draw a straight line from the "Regret" deathbed speech by Jason Robards' Big Earl Partridge in MAGNOLIA to hippie private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), whose days spent in a weed-induced haze are primarily his way of getting over the one that got away.

That would be Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, Sam's daughter), who suddenly reappears, walking through Doc's front door a year after they split. She's gone semi-establishment, with a sugar daddy in wealthy real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Wolfmann is missing, and Shasta tells Doc that she was offered a chance to take part in a haphazard plot by Wolfmann's wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boy-toy Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson) to orchestrate Wolfmann's disappearance and ship him off to a mental institution. Fearing for her own safety, Shasta leaves Doc's and promptly disappears herself as Doc soon becomes embroiled in a complex plot that inevitably leads back to Shasta. Drifting in and out of the story are Doc's chief nemesis, raging, flat-topped detective and part-time actor Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin); Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), Doc's imaginary Girl Friday who functions as his conscience and the voice that brings Pynchon's prose to life; ex-con Tariq Kallil (Michael Kenneth Williams), who points Doc in the direction of Wolfmann's neo-Nazi bodyguard Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who turns up dead; Charlock's sultry sister Clancy (Michelle Sinclair, aka porn star Belladonna), who's only into doing two men at once; Doc's current girlfriend and assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon); session saxophonist and recovering drug addict Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who's forced into being an informant by both the cops and the FBI; Doc's attorney Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), whose specialty is maritime law; coke-snorting, sex-addicted dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short); runaway rich girl Japonica Fenway (Sacha Pieterse); incompetent, nose-picking FBI agents Flatweed (Sam Jaeger) and Borderline (Timothy Simons); and various shady figures like Japonica's wealthy father Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), drug lord Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), and Aryan Brotherhood strongarm Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine); and a huge shipment of heroin swiped from Golden Fang, a corporation used as a front for the nefarious Indo-Chinese drug trade.

At the heart of INHERENT VICE is the relationship between Doc and Shasta, and one of the highlights of the film is a long and extraordinarily erotic sequence that should likely make a star out of Waterston (you'll know it when you see it). Phoenix is in every scene, and displays some comic chops and timing that really allow him to stretch and cut loose in ways you've never seen before. His banter with cartoonish supercop Bjornsen is often screamingly funny, and whether he's bellowing at diner cooks, kicking down doors, or delicately eating a frozen chocolate dipped banana in a way that bears an alarming resemblance to fellatio (with Phoenix's dismayed expressions looking like those of a disgusted Benny Hill) or tacitly dissing Smilax (working as Doc's criminal defense lawyer) with "Don't you practice marine law?  Well, we've got kidnapping and murder, but we can throw some pirates in if it makes you more comfortable," Brolin has never been better than he is here. Amidst the drug humor and the increasingly ridiculous situations in which Doc finds himself, there's a downbeat streak of melancholy running throughout the film, from exterior elements like political upheaval and societal horrors (the Manson family is invoked on a couple of occasions) with characters lamenting the passage of time, opportunities squandered, and love lost.

That's not to suggest it goes as deep as a MAGNOLIA or a THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but INHERENT VICE, like THE MASTER, is an Anderson film that probably can't all be taken in on one viewing. Where THE MASTER was often impenetrable and cold, it markedly improved on a second and third viewing, once the plot was known and the more intricate details could be studied. With INHERENT VICE, it's due not to thematic complexity and deeper meaning, but simply because there's so many characters weaving their way through the impossibly complicated storyline, which mostly hangs together but occasionally feels like one of those BIG SLEEP situations where the plot is so tangled that the screenwriters adapting Raymond Chandler's novel weren't even sure who killed one of the victims, forcing them to seek the guidance of Chandler himself only to find out that he didn't know either. At two and a half hours, INHERENT VICE marks the first time that an Anderson film actually feels long. Perhaps because it's mostly an engagingly silly stoner comedy (this may have more blazing than the entire Cheech & Chong filmography), the epic length does make things drag at times...not enough to deem it a buzzkill, but for a guy whose past films never feel as long as they are (how many 189-minute films move as briskly as MAGNOLIA?), the bloat doesn't always feel justified here. Still, minor missteps aside, INHERENT VICE is a very good film by a director usually counted on to deliver great ones, one of the few filmmakers whose every new work is a legitimate event, and in the current American movie scene, Anderson's "very good" is still better than most filmmakers' "best."

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