Skip to main content

They're helping me wake up from my bad hippie dream.

Inherent Vice
(2014)

(SPOILERS) I can quite see why Inherent Vice hasn’t been clutched to collective bosoms in the way some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous pictures have. It isn’t funny enough to be designated an all-out comedy (like The Big Lebowski), or intriguing enough to be termed a fully-fledged mystery (like Chinatown), too disinterested to be a commentary on any kind of times (like The Long Goodbye) and insufficiently whacked out to be celebrated as a intoxicated space ride (like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). But it’s definitely got something and, in Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry “Doc” Sportello, relishes a protagonist who may not be as instantly iconic as The Dude but is singularly memorable in his stoned well-meaning and good nature. A real hippie.


I haven’t always been Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest fan. I thought Boogie Nights was merely okay, and found Magnolia actively irritating. But both There Will Be Blood and The Master were rich, immersive experiences, ones that were rewarding and resonant. I don’t think Inherent Vice (ironically, given half the title) exerts the same grip; it’s too sedate in embracing its main character’s stoner ways and, ironically (again) given the reports of a loose and chaotic set, rather studied in its capturing of the period, but if you’re willing to go along for the rambling ride, with its frequent detours from the point and non-integral interludes, PTA’s adaptation (as Wikipedia calls it, a “stoner crime comedy-drama film”) of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is highly enjoyable.


Revolving around private investigator Doc’s looking into the case of a disappeared real estate developer (Mickey Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts), at the behest of his former girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterstone), whom he is still hung up on and who has been seeing Wolfmann, the plot spins off in multiple directions, some of them clues, others red herrings.


Shasta disappears, spurring Doc’s efforts. There’s Aryan Brotherhood member Glen Charlock, one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards who shows up dead, the rumoured intent of Wolfmann’s wife and lover to have Mickey sectioned, and the mysterious Golden Fang, a syndicate of dentists, a boat, or an international drug smuggling ring (or all three). Then there’s his second (or third, since the second is Tariq Khalil’s – Michael K Williams – request to find Charlock, who owes him money; “You see, outside of Glen, I ain’t never liked the company of Nazis”), to find the husband of recovering heroin addict Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone).


En route, Doc is interrogated by the FBI (“There’s no need to be insulting” responds one, when Doc suggests they are in the same business) and continually hassled by nemesis Detective Christian F Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who alternatively confides in Doc, sets him up, makes worrisome innuendos or gets him to do his dirty work (in respect of loan shark Adrian Prussia and his connection to Bigfoot’s former partner).


Seen through Doc’s heightened gauze, the plot only attains anything approaching urgency on those occasions when he is in direct danger (the sequence in which Prussia and his lackey intend to administer an overdose to Doc proves him surprisingly capable, and is the only point where the picture enters into straightforward thriller territory). The narration from Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) emphasises this, a seductively drowsy piece of half-spun wisdom somewhere between off True Romance/Badlands and The Stranger from The Big Lebowski (“These were perilous times, astrally speaking, for dopers”).


Like the Dude, Doc continually wanders haplessly into far-out and dangerous situations, navigating them in a permanently half-baked state. Half of what he writes on his notepad is gibberish (“Paranoia Alert” is his response to the synchronicity of Kalil presenting a case connected to Wolfmann) and at various points he is high on laughing gas and snorting coke like a demon, just to modify his drugs regimen. Oh, and he gets shot full of PCP.


That said, apart from a sequence in which Doc is hit on the head and we see Dude-esque visuals, Anderson is restrained on the whole hallucinatory state, allowing the larger-than-life characters to do the work for him. Visually this has the kind of hazy ‘70s sun-bleached vibe you’d expect (complete with burnt orange miniskirts and green telephones), and Johnny Greenwood furnishes an appropriately psychedelic score, like The Doors if they were doing background music.


For Doc’s misadventures, the journey’s the thing rather than the destination, so it may not be surprising that some found Inherent Vice confusing (I have to say that even with three nominal investigations, it’s easier than many detective pictures to keep a track off; I expect it depends how stoned you are when viewing it). Doc’s inability to move on from Shasta makes her a hippy era femme fatale, one who can show up and wrap him round her little finger (or any part of her, depending on how disrobed she is at the time), and with whom the nominal happy ending (“This doesn’t mean we’re back together”) might be regarded as a reflection of the finite and on-the-turn hippy dream (this is 1970, and Manson-type cults are repeatedly referenced, while the down side of the liberation of drugs is emphasised when it is noted that Doc is one of the few who doesn’t use heroin). Alternatively, this could just be Doc’s own fantasy (we see Shasta only with him once she returns, and she’s all over him).


Waterston is very good, but her character is little more than a cypher, a means to move the plot and add colour to Doc’s motivations and illusions. The primary relationship is with Brolin’s Renaissance detective Bigfoot, a flat-topped lieutenant with “an evil twinkle in his eye that says civil rights violations”. His uptight fury at the liberated generation reminded me a little of his character in Milk, just as a fully-fledged caricature this time. It’s Doc’s responses to Bigfoot that humanise him (when he is losing it in the last scene, and Doc sheds a tear; “I’m not your brother”; “No, but you need a keeper”), or the scene where Mrs Bjornsen starts haranguing Doc on the phone about the therapy Bigfoot has to endure as a result of dealing with him; Bigfoot’s a man whose world no longer makes any sense, and is crumbling around him.


The heart of the picture comes in respect to f the Harlingen case, though, and Doc’s intent to get informer Coy back with his wife and child. Owen Wilson is perfect for this kind of role, almost too perfect, while Jena Malone as his matter-of-fact wife (discussing the ravaging effects of heroin and her false teeth) is equally strong.  There’s a scene between Coy and Doc at a party, in partial code, that forms one of the picture’s fitfully wholly engrossing moments (“Are you saying the US is somebody’s mom?”). This is the difference between the precision of the Coens and the coasting, freewheeling approach of PTA, where not everything has to count. Likewise, Doc’s conversation with Bigfoot concerning Robert Prussia is precise and holds the attention, and its with these kinds of moment that the picture is at is best, as we integrate the fractured information fed to the doper.


PTA, with Cheech and Chong and Furry Freak Brothers as touchstones, ensures there’s a healthy vein of absurdity coursing through the picture. It’s often very funny (“He perished in a trampoline accident, didn’t he?”); Doc’s slalom entering the police station so as not to get beaten on; his scream on seeing baby Harlingen photo; the mother and daughter drugs couriers; the gloriously unhinged performance from Martin Short as Dr Rudy Blatnoyd (the name itself is bliss) a coke fiend predator-come-shrink (“Doctor, I think there’s a problem with the couch in your office. And bring that bottle” instructs his female assistant; Blatnoyd follows her, his trousers around his ankles).


Anderson’s willingness to indulge means some of the broader, goofier stuff doesn’t quite work (Bigfoot’s phallic food oral fixation is overdone in the way an 14-year-old would probably find hilarious), while the offices of Voorhes-Krueger is the kind of cheap reference you’d expect from an Adam Sandler fan. Likewise, his staging of last supper with pizza is kind of visually puerile; the sort of thing Kevin Smith would do if he had any directorial ability.


The cast is magnificent, top to bottom. I don’t know if Robert Downey Jr. would have been better as Doc, but he certainly isn’t missed. Reese Witherspoon has some fun as the Assistant D.A. sometime girlfriend of Doc, Benicio del Toro plays a relatively sober attorney (unlike in Fear and Loathing), Martin Donovan, Eric Roberts, and Serena Scott Thomas all cameo to memorable effect.


Inherent Vice (apparently: a property of or defect in a physical object that causes it to deteriorate due to a fundamental instability of its components, so it may make the item an unacceptable risk, and the insurer may not be liable to a claim if they haven’t been forewarned about it) definitely deserves its place on the many Top 10 lists of 2014 (including mine) but I’m not yet sure whether I’ll come to regard it as an all-time classic. It’s a picture that needs to percolate through repeat visits, so perhaps so. I was fairly certain the first time I saw The Big Lebwoski of its longevity, and that one took a few years to catch fire in cultdom. Certainly, it shares box office failure with the Coen Brothers’ picture, so if that’s any testament to merit it ought to be some consolation to Anderson. 




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times.

The Owl Service
Episode Two
Huw tells the story of the Mabinogion (“Yes sir, that is how it is happening, all times”). Roger takes on both an investigatory position and a reluctant one (he conceals Alison’s scratch with a plaster, perhaps embarrassed by the carnal passions it implies). And no one seems all that concerned about the vanishing plate designs (although the others think Alison must have done it).

The tensions between the trio have started to mount up. Most effective is the scene where Gwyn confronts Alison. Clad in a bikini, she lies on a sun lounger reading the Mabinogion. As Gwyn angrily sends the book flying, we see quick cuts of her painted face (“You shouldn’t have done that!”) and the sound of fluttering pages/birds as he flees, apparently pursued by something. And then they make up, as if all is fine and it was just a lover’s tiff. Now Roger, wearing, Alison’s sunglasses and with an impassive expression suggesting subdued jealousy, observes them. Roger gets many of the …