"Doc may not be a do-gooder, but he's done good."
The seventh film from Paul Thomas Anderson is also the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel and if you have read his books you’ll know that it’s not hard to see why. His strange and drug driven narratives seem near-impossible to be brought to the big screen, but PTA might just be the man who can.
Under the weight of his ex in 1970 Los Angeles, private detective Doc Sportello goes looking for her new lover who has recently disappeared into sea of crazy conspiracies, drug smugglers, informants, corrupt cops, dentists and a mysterious organisation called The Golden Fang.
A philosophy of Pynchon is that the less the reader understands the better. PTA has done this in some of his films as well such as Magnolia (do we really try to work out why the frogs fall from the sky) and he instantly recognises that Inherent Vice works because of that and there’s no need to change that atmosphere. He jumps at the opportunity to send the audience on their own trip and only needs them to be vaguely conscious to enjoy it and love it.
PTA obviously loves the 70s and just as he did with Boogie Nights, relishes in the chance to visit it. You get the sense of every spectrum changing for these characters, capitalism is coming and for some this is the start of the world and for others the end. The atmosphere and the general vibe of the film were wonderfully absurd throughout.
The plot, now this is something that really can’t be addressed in writing. If you try to get to grips with the structure and story of this film then you will be waving goodbye to your sanity. The story is smothered by hallucinogenic smoke and gravity defying hairstyles that create one of the most unconventional styles of storytelling I’ve seen in a long time. This is the kind of film you inject rather than merely watch and examine, you need to immerse yourself within the visuals, and style and humour and let it wash over you as quickly as you like.
If you really want to grasp and understand this plot then I can say straight away that you should not watch this film. Now I enjoy well written stories with a structure you can grasp and sink your teeth into and then analyse it to my heart’s content. But sometimes a film can make me forget about that. Sometimes I’m happy to be swept along on a wild ride as long as the characters alone are gripping and interesting and the atmosphere of the film is one that I want to exist in. Too many films separate the substance from the plot, for Inherent Vice the plot is the substance in the sense that its complexity and absurdity is almost a giant joke in itself, and I mean that in a nice way.
Doc is a wonderful creation and brought to life in such a maddeningly freaky yet watchable way by Joaquin Phoenix. He becomes this great mixture of cunning and confusion that you’re never really sure if he has the faintest idea of what he’s doing. The surreal aspects of the film don’t stop him from showing off his remarkable passion and humour, but at the same time there’s a darker interior on show with an air of tragic bitterness about him.
Phoenix ties the film together (if you can argue that the film is tied together at all) as he has a series of increasingly bizarre encounters that include Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and Reese Witherspoon, all of which work very well but each in a different manner. The soulful and laid back attitude contrasts wonderfully with the different characters in different ways, from total agreement with some to complete opposition from others.
This is a playful kind of film noir, harking back to the earlier days of the Coen brothers and the more recent outings of Shane Black. It treads a nice line between bright comedy and slapstick as well as some moments of violence. Long takes and intimate close ups are rife and they are flushed up in the look of the 70s, either neon colours or brilliant beige.
The language of the film is lifted from the book and incorporates all of the existentialism, pointless but hilarious banter that PTA is known for. His conversations almost form their own plot and the nimble blend of so many emotions drew me in expertly. I admit it is impossible to watch a film for the first time and not try to understand the plot, if so and you leave the film feeling unsure of whether you like it or not, watch it again. You may like it more.
Ignorance is the key here, if you have to grapple with the plot then you’re doomed. Trust me and just let it go I know that sounds pretentious but if you do your reward is a hilarious, haunting, anarchic, tragic, profound, beautiful and unique experience.