Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Goofy Melancholy of "Inherent Vice"

Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson has never been a very mainstream filmmaker (not since Magnolia, anyway, and some would argue even that), but his last two films have been very polarizing. The Master was so complex (or disjointed or weird or nonsensical or etc.) that some critics theorized that Anderson himself was the titular "Master" and/or the film was about the acting process (click here for an article that will lead you down the rabbit hole of Master theories and criticism). Not to get too far into it, but that film allowed itself to be viewed in many different ways. I considered it an intentional comedy (the more you look at Anderson's filmography, the more you'll see that all of his films are at least partially comedic) and counted it among my favorite films of the year. Inherent Vice is equally polarizing, but for different reasons. Perhaps it's because it's so polarizing and different that it count it among my favorite films this year.

Inherent Vice, at first glance, looked like a return to Anderson's roots. A huge, talented cast, overt comedy, 1970s setting...could this be his return to the easy-to-watch-but-still-thematically-rich Boogie Nights-style? No, it is not. Not by a long shot. Inherent Vice isn't Anderson's strangest film (The Master holds that distinction), but it is arguably his least accessible (runner-up? The Master). Despite the goofy previews, Vice is a hopelessly dense film that encourages you not to understand it. I'm fine with that, but others will be frustrated. I'm okay with it being dense because this is an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Pynchon is know for complex stories that don't necessarily make sense...or rather, stories that don't have crystal clear resolutions. Anderson is the perfect candidate to adapt such an author's work because both of them appear to going for the same thing: make something interesting that potentially says a lot about a number of issues without coming out and saying it, and have fun with it.

Anderson stated in Total Film in reference to The Big Sleep, an influence on the film, "I never remember plots in movies. I remember how they make me feel." It is obvious that Anderson feels this way about his own work these days. It's not that there isn't a story in Vice (if anything, there's too much); it's just that Anderson (and Pynchon) is not concerned with making sure you understand everything; they just want you to feel something. I don't take that to mean they want you to care about the characters all that much (though I do really like Vice's Doc Sportello and Bigfoot Bjornsen); I think it applies to the general feeling you get as you watch the film. When it comes to Vice, many of the film's fans will claim the movie made them feel high, and that was the whole point of it. I disagree. This film felt more strangely melancholy to me, a goofy melancholy, if such a feeling exists... I didn't take the confusion and randomness as something meant to make me feel high; I took it as intentional comedy laced with a sad realization that the world has changed. Set in 1970, Inherent Vice is more about the transition from the free-spirited '60s into the paranoid '70s than it is about the actual kidnapping/murder/drug cartel/dentist conglomerate/ex-old lady/stoner plot.

The transition of carefree to conspiracy lends itself to confusion, comedy, and sadness. The plot itself is confusing as Doc (a perfect Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles from one lead to the next adding more questions than answers. It's hard to keep up with, but Doc has a hard time to. Doc isn't only meant to be our conduit; he's also meant to be a representation of the audience we can laugh at. I wasn't trying to figure things out along with Doc, I was laughing at him grow more and more confused. He's also high throughout, so there are a few cheap laughs along those lines, as well. So the feeling is kind of goofy, but the score (by Anderson-regular Jonny Greenwood) reminds us at times that this is actually a pretty depressing end of an era. Certain musical touches reminded me of Apocalypse Now as Willard made his dark journey up the river. Greenwood created an end-of-it-all sound for some scenes that added another layer to the film.

Because of the score, soundtrack, and goofy melancholy of the film, it's tonally all over the place...kind of like the plot. This would certainly be a negative observation for most films, but most films aren't directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Some would argue that Anderson gets a pass from fanboys (like me, and I do not consider "fanboy" to be a negative term) who turn what would traditionally be considered missteps into strokes of genius. I am certainly guilty of this, but I believe that Anderson knows what he is doing. For this film, however, a bit of that is out of his hands. This is his first sincere attempt at an adaptation (There Will Be Blood was only loosely based on an Upton Sinclair book), and he remained quite faithful to Pynchon's material. The messy, convoluted plot is actually evidence that this is a faithful adaptation. If anyone takes issue with that, then the critique should really be that Pynchon books are too dense for film. I'm almost inclined to agree. I read the book twice (once when it first came out and again before watching the film), and I still had a hard time following it. I can't imagine what it's like for someone completely new to the story. But I am one of the people who think the confusion is a good choice. By the end of the film, it was kind of amusing to share the confused looks Doc made with each twist and turn.

Anderson is one of the few directors out there that I will over-analyze and (possibly) credit too much. (Darren Aronofsky is the other director whose films I find myself automatically liking.) But I believe he has earned it. If a viewer doesn't share this feeling, then they could easily dismiss Inherent Vice as a misstep in Anderson's career. I've looked into these criticisms and from a certain point of view, they are all correct. This film is a mess, it makes no sense, visually it's not on the same obviously impressive level of his other work, etc. From my (fanboy) perspective, all of those "critiques" are intentional and serve the overall purpose of the film.

In my view, the overall purpose of the film was to create the feeling of transition from '60s to the '70s and all of the elements added up to that. It was a messy, confusing time in which people didn't know who could be trusted. The film exudes that feeling. It's about a shift from (slightly) innocent times to dark conspiratorial times. There's a quote at the beginning of the novel and at the end of the film from Paris during the 1968 protest: "Under the paving stones, the beach!" That sums up the theme of both novel and movie; the real world is hidden under progress. Doc is one of those people trying to find the beach, although his search is a bit drug-impaired.

Speaking of Doc, Joaquin Phoenix portrays him in mumbling glory. I didn't feel stoned while watching this, but Phoenix certainly looked it. It's a hilarious and likable performance that I think will only get better with repeated viewings. The film and novel have been compared to The Big Lebowski, and I think the comparison is most apt when looking at Doc and The Dude. Phoenix has mastered the use of facial expressions in this role. It's not that he's good at looking stoned/confused (though he is great at that), it's his reaction to everything. His performance is really more Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson than it is Jeff Bridges as The Dude. It's still very much his own, original performance, however. But there are certainly shades of other famous stoners in there. Phoenix does his best work opposite Josh Brolin as Doc's friend/adversary Bigfoot Bjornsen. Their scenes together are by far the film's most comedic moments. Brolin is being grossly ignored this awards season.

The focus on Doc's expression actually undermines the film's look, though. The majority of the film is shot in close-ups on characters' faces. When seen on the big screen, it's almost strange how close up many of the shots are. This is frustrating because Anderson is so good at composing visuals. There are still moments in this film, but you have to really be looking for them: The Last Supper (Pizza) shot at a house party (which is actually directly taken from the book), the scene at the docks that starts in close up and almost unnoticeably pulls back into a long shot, the scene with Penny on the bench that starts as a long shot and unnoticeably pushes into a close up, and the very effective long take near the end of the film (you'll know what I mean when you see it). Anderson is a master at work, but I prefer his more cinematic moments a la There Will Be Blood. Though I must say, this visual style works for this film.

I could go on, but this is far too wordy a review as it is. There is so much more to discuss, though. I barely mentioned the supporting cast (all of which were great). There are the hallucinations that Doc has leading some to question the majority of the movie. There's the rumored Pynchon cameo that no one will confirm (some think he's the one walking back and forth behind Owen Wilson and Phoenix in the house party scene). I could go on, but I won't. To close, Inherent Vice is not accessible, but if you fully try to access it, it is an immensely rewarding experience. This is not to say that those who dismiss it or dislike it "don't get it" (at this point, that phrase should be banned from film discussion); it just means that some people will see interesting elements where others see faults. It's all about the viewer's perception. It just helps if that view is an Anderson fanboy.

Inherent Vice receives a:
That's Anderson wearing the hood...
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, I need to add more. First off, in defense of being a Paul Thomas Anderson fanboy. The guy doesn't make the same movie twice, I think everyone can agree. I find myself wanting another There Will Be Blood, but I really don't. That would be a waste of Anderson's time. So as long as he keeps doing something new and unique each time, I'm going to keep focusing too deeply on his movies. And I'm also going to like them for their very existence because too few directors are willing to try something new every time out.

Now for the hallucinations. Early in the movie, Doc sees Bigfoot in a commercial, and then Bigfoot directly addresses him. This is the only time it is crystal clear that Doc is hallucinating, but it opens the entire movie to that possibility. I'm always one to argue that the majority of a film is actually happening as we see it, and I am inclined to stick with that position for this film. Others have been theorizing that more outlandish moments, like Bigfoot showing up to eat a whole tray of weed, are hallucinations as well. I can see the argument for this, and it's interesting to watch the film with that possibility in mind, but I like it more believing that most of it is real. Bigfoot showing up to eat a tray of weed is a more powerful scene when it actually happens because it shows that Bigfoot is very troubled, and Doc truly cares about him (he does shed that tear while watching him eat). It's seems less powerful if it turns out Doc is just seeing things or, worse, Bigfoot is a Tyler Durden-type creation of Doc's mind (that theory is out there, check IMDb). 

What I truly love about Anderson's movies are that they do create a feeling. It's hard to define, but as I watched the film, I wasn't sure that I liked it all that much. But as I thought about it, certain elements stuck with me (the music gets me every time). I couldn't explain why I liked or disliked it, but I wanted to see it again for that feeling. Once I watched it again, I did decide that I liked it, but I still can't accurately describe the feeling it give me. I suppose this is why I'm always up for re-watching an Anderson movie. There are entire articles about whether a movie should have to be viewed more than once. I'm not saying anyone has to watch this film more than once. I just think Anderson's movies get better with each viewing. I'm not sure that's something someone can do intentionally, but it's definitely been the case with the majority of his films. Okay, I'm done now. I'm going to go watch The Master on a loop until Inherent Vice comes out on video. 

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