Cinematic Releases: Inherent Vice

Kisner takes on the latest and extremely divisive Inherent Vice. 

"I'm really gonna freak people out
and tell them that I'm starting
a rap career. What do you
think? Good idea?
Sometimes there are films where all the pieces don’t quite fit together. It’s like a completed puzzle that got left on the dining room table—someone bumps the table and a few pieces get knocked out of place. The picture is still discernable but it’s now incomplete. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, Inherent Vice, is one such movie. The quickest way to get to a destination is in a straight line, but that can also be the most boring and pedestrian way. Wouldn’t it be more intriguing to meander around a bit and take in the sights and the sounds? Only squares go the direct route anyway, man.

Inherent Vice is based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, a writer who is known for occasionally having an almost incomprehensible writing style. Pynchon writes stream-of-consciousness with rapid fire dialogue and a tendency to jump around in the storyline. This sounds pretentious, but in reality, he is a master of mixing beautiful prose-caliber writing with hilarious low-brow fart and sex jokes. He comes off as an educated everyman and it makes his work more approachable and endearing. I was always under the impression that anything he wrote would be impossible to adapt to film, but Anderson has proven me wrong.

The movie follows the adventures of private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to find his ex-girlfriend’s missing sugar daddy-turned-boyfriend.  It’s the 1970’s and Doc is a weed-smoking dirty hippy, which makes it a bit harder for him to gain any sort of leads into the case. We wade through all of his bizarre encounters as he floats in a cloud of smoke trying to find his way through the haze and complicated situations. The plot is convoluted at times and just as it is in the book, the audience is dropped into various scenes with no explanation. It’s a haphazard sensation and some might feel uneasy without the tether they are used to having in more traditional films.

"And after I rap for a while, I'm
gonna act really weird and confused.
After that, it's time to piss off
Letterman. Good idea?"
Doc works with a straight-laced detective named “Bigfoot”, played by a severe flat-top haircut sporting Josh Brolin. His performance is one of the best in the film, and he nails the deadpan asshole shtick perfectly. He is the perfect antithesis to Phoenix’s goofy, befuddled and loose interpretation of Doc.  Much of the movie is spent with Phoenix furrowing his brow in confusion as he lazily smokes a joint or picks his toenails, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It might even mirror the reaction of some of the viewers of this film.

People who aren’t familiar with Pynchon’s work will be surprised by how absolutely hilarious and downright filthy his writing is. Imagine an author who has the ability to write like William Faulkner but with the dirty mind of Charles Bukowski and you will have an idea of what the experience is like. Inherent Vice is droll, absurd (there is some slapstick humor thrown in) and downright wacky at times.  There are a few scenes that had me laughing like an idiot. It’s obvious Anderson had fun making this film and didn’t take it too seriously. Everything has a leisurely feel to it and it moves along at a slow pace. At two-and-a-half hours the length is on par with his previous films.

"Or maybe I'll just take up smoking.
Good idea?"
The look of the film is great and it captures the 1970’s era perfectly.  It has a desaturated color palette that makes it look like a made-for-TV film, but not in a cheap way.  The cinematography and lighting are at Anderson’s usual impeccable standards and he makes good use of slow motion for a few important scenes.  The soundtrack and score are absolutely wonderful.  The incidental music is interesting because it uses fuzzy guitar, bass, and keyboard synth to make that iconic ‘70s sound, but modern style arrangements and chord progressions.  There are loads of famous songs rounding out the rest of the soundtrack.  I find that Anderson’s films always have interesting musical choices and scores—Inherent Vice is no different.   

While I don’t think this is the best film in Anderson’s filmography, it is the best (and only) adaptation of Pynchon’s writing.  The style and atmosphere are perfect and it captures the frantic genius that is that Thomas Pynchon.  Maybe someone will go for broke and try to adapt Gravity’s Rainbow next and really blow some freaking minds.

 -Michelle Kisner