Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

Postby CAP » Thu Mar 26, 2015 10:57 am

This is a comic mystery thriller, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, set in Los Angeles in 1970 about a down-at-heel doctor of some sort (gynaecologist? - to be tactful - abortionist? - to be tactless - guessing from the examination table in his surgery) Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) also an occasional private investigator, who is drawn into an impenetrable web of crime when unexpectedly asked by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), to find her missing partner, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a wealthy real estate developer. Shasta wants Doc to prevent Mickey’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) from having Mickey abducted and committed to an insane asylum (if he hasn’t been already) in order to claim his fortune. In other words Shasta wants a big favour from Doc; for old times’ sake. The plot instantly recalls classic private eye tales by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, their famous movie adaptations and countless imitations, but here given an especially seedy and unlikely anti-hero. We smirk knowingly. At 149 minutes, it’s a very long movie, studded with an A-list supporting cast that includes Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Martin Donovan and Martin Short, all doing sterling turns and you want the movie to somehow be more than just a laboured spoof on a faded genre, set in uncertain era (end of the hippy sixties, start of the Nixon Administration). You want it to eventually acquire some sort of momentum and focus, an emotional punch or point. Sadly, it never does. I give it 6.

Naturally the critics love it though, caught up in their film-buffed nostalgia, rifling back through The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, for fleeting allusions and sly homages, all the way back to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. The Guardian’s lumbering John Patterson watches it again and again, forestalling judgement while free-associating through sundry sixties ‘noir’ films, somehow including Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Waugh’s The Loved One, on the strength that it is set in L.A, presumably. John – get a life. Anderson is just not that good, not worth the effort. Peter Bradshaw, also for The Guardian finds echoes of Zabriskie Point, incomprehensibly, on the strength of no more than dubious real estate developments! These arise in Chinatown as well. Pete - take your hand off it. No one cites Night Moves, mercifully - a very bleak private eye thriller from 1977. Inherent Vice is based, fairly faithfully, according to reports, on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same title, published in 2009. It may be some of the confusions to the story are explained there. I haven’t read it. I gave up on Pynchon after Gravity’s Rainbow – a little too obsessive and tedious for me. So the movie was never going to my thing, really. If I wanted a kind of stoned version of a private eye (purportedly the comic aim) I’d have gone for something like Richard Brautigan’s Dreaming of Babylon, a late and lesser work by the old hippy, perfectly marrying dope-fuelled whimsy with hardboiled thriller. But the freelance private eye is an easy target, whatever the angle, has been for some time. Actually there’s a lot more interest in forensic science as a crime genre these days. People love the idea that the devil is in the microscopic detail, the infrared, laser-guided satellite monitoring and CCTV, the statistical modelling, profiling, rendering, the bio-chemistry and the DNA etc. They want science rather than endless boring interviews, footwork, paperwork and guesswork. And they love to jump all over the past, as a way of reassuring themselves about their grasp of the present. This movie is into that big time.

The movie revels in period grooming, in Doc’s extravagant mutton chops and Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen’s (Brolin) bristling buzz cut (on this point I pencil in Brolin should a John Cage biopic eventuate, and I am for some reason canvassed for casting options) and costume, in flairs and sandals, long collars, wide belts and ties, loose blouses and countless matters of decor, from telephones to wallpaper. The look is note perfect. What’s missing is a working world around it, a plausible reality. Much is made of Doc’s constant intoxication with dope for example, yet why would anyone so stoned be even interested, much less capable, of doing something as demanding and dangerous as criminal detection? The two may be comically incompatible but they severely strain credibility and not just for Doc. Why would Shasta, appeal to such a loser, in the circumstances? She is quite clearly much less a stoner these days, more of a gold digger. Similarly, Doc’s place within the counter culture is scarcely more convincing. We never really establish a social circle for the middle-aged hipster, where or how he scores for instance (which would need to be fairly frequently) or even a specific income, as noted, much less a past that acquaints him with police procedure and local staff. He exists in a kind of vacuum, a concept or construct, more than a realised character. Just why he should prefer the unreliable Shasta ultimately to his current lover, the Police officer Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) also begs explanation. We never really get to grips with Doc. As a consequence his adventures lack just that: consequence.

The story is propelled by a string of extended dialogues, linked by a knowing voice-over, in the best private eye tradition. But here the role is curiously reserved for Doc’s occasional associate, Sortilege, (Joanna Newsome) a new age astrologer. She is a puzzling choice given her peripheral role and again renders the story just a little too arch and contrived. But it is the set pieces, between Doc and the glowing cameos - Coy Harlingen (Wilson), Penny Kimball, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Sauncho Smilax (del Toro) and Crocker Fenway (Donovan) that animate the story, not just imparting vital back-story and amusing wit but an array of urgent moods and character. Unfortunately, they never quite flow. They remain a string of isolated moments – brilliantly acted, but leading nowhere. Anderson clearly enjoys such encounters and mostly they are filmed in long takes, allowing the actors to build on the momentum and the camera to perform subtle moves or zooms. But again, the attention to moment, like the attention to period detail is ultimately misplaced or overdone and soon alerts us to flaws in the bigger picture, the longer story. The most glaring example is surely the much remarked upon scene toward the end of the movie where Shasta enters Doc’s office nude and embarks on a rambling monologue of her tribulations with Mickey, as some sort of perverse seduction. It is quite a long scene, most of it in a carefully framed wide shot, somewhat confining Waterston’s movements, much less any seduction of the prone Doc. And it just doesn’t work. It looks exactly what it is – a carefully rehearsed monologue and framing that allows the actress to awkwardly, albeit modestly, move from the background to the extreme foreground by sprawling across Doc’s lap, presenting her buttocks to him, which he eventually spanks vigorously before squirming around to take her while her face remains turned to the camera. It is not so much her calculated passivity, although this seems to have ‘bummed’ the NYT reviewer, but the sheer mechanics that kills any convincing interaction between the characters.

The scene is supposed to be a kind of coup, perhaps in the Welles tradition of exploiting deep focus staging within a frame, but it seems so contrived, so arbitrary within a story of mellow dopers bungling and misunderstanding, that it completely lacks impact. It just looks like a technical exercise. I’m not sure the chemistry between Phoenix and Waterston is all that great either. But the scene does seem emblematic of what is wrong with the movie, and why I don’t think Anderson is that important a director.
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