Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Inherent Vice

 Well, let's start the uphill battle that is putting Inherent Vice on a "Best Of" list, because everywhere I look, there's hate for this movie. Like, serious, seething, "how could you like that movie?!?" hate for Inherent Vice. To me, it's mind boggling the negativity surrounding this film, and I've read articles like "How to Make a Movie People Will Walk Out Of" or listened to Red Letter Media snarkily insinuate that anyone who says they "understood" Inherent Vice is "lying" and trying to look cool to their film snob friends. I would say that Inherent Vice is a divisive film, but it feels like there's not much of a divide: everybody hates it, and the people who don't (and I haven't found many) are somehow deluded or outright lying to maintain their "cred".  So I get that you don't like it, but I'm not sure why, and I'm not delusional or trying to earn "hip" points. It's not "Paul Thomas Anderson's worst movie," although I've seen that one a few times.

 Was is because the trailer made it look like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Big Lebowski and it's not? Because it's not: it's Paul Thomas Anderson's The Long Goodbye, but we'll get to that? Is it because of some perceived "impenetrability" based solely on the fact Anderson adapted it from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and you've heard Thomas Pynchon novels are notoriously impenetrable? I suppose it's not going to matter to you that I read Inherent Vice, and not only is it easy to follow, but Anderson dropped two subplots and half a dozen characters, making the movie easier to follow. Was it because most of Doc (Joaquin Phoenix)'s dialogue is mumbled? Okay, I'll give you that one. Yeah, you're going to have to pay attention. It is a mystery, and yeah, there are a lot of pieces in the air for Anderson to juggle. You're going to have to do a little bit of work keeping up, and both the novel and film throw a lot of names at you.

 (The following paragraphs are going SPOIL plot elements in an effort to clarify lingering questions)

 On the other hand, there are only two that are really important: Larry "Doc" Sportello and Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Throw in Lieutenant Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) if you want, but most of the rest of it is window dressing. The Golden Fang (boat and organization) is pretty much a MacGuffin, but if it helps, it's a government run operation designed to get people hooked on heroin, clean them out, and convince them to work as double agents in the counterculture. That's exactly what happens to Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who was planning on spending his fortune to make free housing possible. (Anderson drops the part of Pynchon's book where the government also wants him to invest in a run-down Las Vegas casino in order to get a foothold in the area). The entire Golden Fang operation is explained during the scene when Doc and Sauncho (Benicio Del Toro) are in the seafood restaurant.

 I'm not entirely sure why it's hard to keep up with, because in this regard you don't even need to read the book, but all of Doc's cases are tied together: Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) is looking for his associate Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who is killed when Doc goes to visit the housing development. Glenn's sister, Charla (Beladonna) comes to visit Doc later. Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), left his family to be a government informant, and ended up working for the Golden Fang. Bigfoot's partner was killed by Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), so Bigfoot uses Doc to even the score and then steals the Golden Fang's heroin shipment. Doc uses the heroin as leverage to make a deal that returns Coy to his wife, Hope (Jenna Malone), solving that case. All of this happens in service of putting Doc and Shasta back together, even if "this doesn't mean we're back together."

 Yes, I left out a lot of other characters, but just like The Long Goodbye (directed by Robert Altman, based on a Raymond Chandler novel), many of the supporting cast members are for decoration. It's not really important that you remember who Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn) is other than he hangs out with Doc. Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) is there to give you some idea of how reckless the Golden Fang is. Penny (Reese Witherspoon) provides Doc with the evidence that ties Coy into the conspiracy surrounding Wolfmann. Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse) exists so when Doc meets with her father (Martin Donovan) at the end, there's history between the two and they don't just kill Sportello. So, yeah, I'm not sure why so many people insist that there's no "there" there, or that the story doesn't make any sense.

 Anyway, I didn't really want this review to just be a defense of the film, because when I sat down to watch it, the negativity hadn't really settled in online. At the time, I didn't know much about it, other than it kind of looked like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Big Lebowski. As the film unfolded, it was pretty clear that it wasn't, that Doc's attitude less resembled The Dude and was much closer to the way that Elliott Gould played Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. This makes sense insofar as Paul Thomas Anderson has stated that Robert Altman is an influence to him as a filmmaker. Doc wouldn't be like The Dude: he's less befuddled and more playing indifferent, which may be by design or may simply be a side effect of not being sure when he's hallucinating and when he's not. For the record, if Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) is narrating or appears onscreen, he's usually not. If she isn't (for example, the last scene with Bigfoot), there's a chance you might not take everything that happens to be real.

 It took me a little while to get used to that fact, because Doc's laid back attitude tricks you into thinking he's a more reliable main character than he is. As a matter of fact, it makes even more sense for Anderson to expand Sortilège's role and make her the narrator to give us someone more reliable as an anchor at key points in the film. Doc is the focal point, but he's really just another character in his own story, which is why Inherent Vice begins with a shot of Sortilège and then transitions to Shasta in Doc's apartment. What she's saying is, almost verbatim, Pynchon's prose, which Newsom continues to do throughout the film. It's a helpful technique that differentiates Inherent Vice from The Long Goodbye, which drops you in and hopes you can keep up with Gould's even harder to follow mumbled dialogue.

 While I keep going back to The Long Goodbye, a friend of mine feels the film is more strongly linked to Chinatown. Swap out real estate development for water management, and I guess you could make that case, but I think Doc has more agency than Jake Gittes did. He's certainly more in control of his own destiny, and ends up in a happier place by the end, even if the crucial details of the case are totally out of his control - Doc really only helps Coy, and sort of ends up with Shasta again as a byproduct. However, it is better to understand Inherent Vice as a film in the context of those cinematic precedents over an implied connection to the Coen brothers, based mostly on the trailer. Inherent Vice is, quite often, a funny movie, but it's not funny in the same way. Tonally, it's completely different, even if the main character is stoned most of the time. Doc Sportello is not a "slacker" in the same sense that The Dude is, and the grudging respect that Bigfoot has for him (in spite of himself) should clue the audience into that.

 I spent most of Inherent Vice chuckling, at many points because it's not what I thought it was going to be. It's better than that, and despite the apparently rambling narrative, it has a laser focus on what's important. Anderson keeps all of the various characters and seemingly disparate plot threads up in the air with ease, in a way that makes sense when it comes together. It's true that you might need to take some time to digest it, and it wouldn't hurt to read the book, but by no means are you required to. As an adaptation, it boils much of the story down to a useful core, dropping a lot of background detail that help sets up surfer culture in the early 70s in the way that Pynchon could, but that Anderson doesn't have time to. It's the same hazy world that Marlowe was dropped into by Altman (for those of you who haven't seen it, The Long Goodbye the film takes place in the 1970s), with the same kinds of lowlifes looking to make trouble.

 Like Anderson's last film, The Master, I found the performances to be continually engaging. Joaquin Phoenix internalizes most of Doc's mannerisms and reactions, a 180 from his role in The Master (where he played the Id to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Ego). It's sometimes such a laconic performance that you aren't sure when he's genuinely confused and when he's just playing dumb for the client. As much as I enjoyed him, I've found myself leaning towards Brolin's Bigfoot Bjornsen as my favorite role. Bigfoot has the potential to be the most one dimensional character (in the book and the movie), but slowly we realize there's more beneath the surface than "star cop." His phone conversations with Doc are some of the funniest scenes in the film, but also hint at their professional relationship when he's not on duty. The trailer makes a joke out of Bigfoot ordering pancakes at a Japanese restaurant (specifically ordering more in Japanese), but the best part of the scene is when he explains why he eats there. In case you want to see Inherent Vice, I'll let you discover it, but it's a throwaway line that tells you everything you need to know about Bigfoot. Brolin's final scene in the film is... unusual. I choose to chalk it up to Doc hallucinating - it's not in the book the way it happens in the movie - but read it as you will.

 So I know I haven't changed a lot of minds, because this is the internet and well, opinions get entrenched. I still think that Inherent Vice has the chance to grow on people over time, and even if you have to insist it's PTA's "worst" movie, unless you hate all of them, that's not such a bad place to be compared to some of the films I saw this year. I guess 2014 ended up being the year of movies I had to invest a little bit in, to do more work with than the average matinee film. It's been the case with a lot (maybe not all) of the higher end of the recap, and it certainly applies to the last film, which should be coming soon. I can dig it if that's not your thing, and not in a condescending way. I'm not saying that you didn't "get" Inherent Vice, which always reads like an insult that snobs would say, but I am saying that anybody who walked out didn't give it a fair shake. Maybe this will mellow with time. Probably not. Oh well, it's sitting pretty at number two on my list, so it's all good for the Cap'n.

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