Inherent Vice (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
12Jan/150

Inherent Vice (2014)

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Doc's life as a P.I. had been lonely since Shasta went away.  One night she blows back into his life with a problem only he may be able to help with.  But no matter how he feels about Shasta he can't live on her problems alone.  So Doc acquires a caseload, a whole mess of marijuana, and goes out to untangle problems with more connections than he realized.  P.T. Anderson writes the screenplay and directs Inherent Vice, starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Rampant suspicion2016 will mark the 20th anniversary of P.T. Anderson's Hard Eight.  By that time he will have spent two decades as one of the leading voices in American cinema.  I could say he's come a long way since Hard Eight, but really all he's done is abandon the sincere, if excellent, imitation of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese which marked the early passages of his career and started doing his own thing.  What exactly that "thing" entails is likely to get a lot of different responses from people, and I'd wager the response to what the "thing" is will tie into how that person looks at Anderson's Inherent Vice.

For me, Inherent Vice is another lonely journey into a corner of the American psyche.  From Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood, no one has been more interested in the different ways American society has been shaped through its embrace of capitalism.  Inherent Vice continues in this tradition but even though it has a sprawling cast to match the talented spread of Magnolia, Inherent Vice is much more like my absolute favorite Anderson film, Punch-Drunk Love.

While I haven't read the novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice seems a perfect fit for Anderson's sensibility.  It's another story about a lonely man set adrift in a world that seems content to change without him, and is about the extent he's willing to go to for love.  That sentimentality is what makes Inherent Vice ache with isolation at times.  The laughter I frequently experienced wasn't usually because of joy, but through the characters' stumbling attempts at attaining happiness.

Doc's lonely life is interrupted by harbingers of violence. The appearance of these bikers is already a disruptive symbol, and one that grows with the memory of what happened at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.

Doc's lonely life is interrupted by harbingers of violence. The appearance of these bikers is already a disruptive symbol, and one grows more discomforting with familiarity of the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.

The characters Anderson brings to life through Inherent Vice are some of the most outright likeable out of recent memory.  The key is not the embrace of "likability", giving these folks recognizable attributes or lost relatives in some forced attempt at empathy.  But Anderson, in some of the sparest and cleanest camerawork of his career, just let's them tell their stories through their failures and passions.  One line from Tariq Kahlil (Michael K. Williams), militant member of the Black Panthers, comes at the end of two minutes of Anderson inching his camera slowly toward and Tariq explains with a hardened look why he joined up with a white supremacist.  Anderson's camera is spellbound by Williams gradual admission of the little sacrifices Tariq has to make to obtain his goals and how those run counter to what he wants out of life.

Weakness and compromise in the face of an increasingly privatized America unites all Inherent Vice's characters and makes them strange bedfellows.  Tariq's case is one of the most compelling, but even the seemingly innocuous and innocent stories are wonderfully told.  Consider the strange case of Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), who radiates color and life amidst the spare and monochrome settings, only to display shocking photographs and says she's, "...a drug counselor now.  Try to talk kids into sensible drug use."  That's the kind of optimistic thinking which could only flourish with full ignorance of the period of legislation that lies ahead of her, but Malone's delivery gives it a sort of wonderful innocence I wish we could have spent more time with.

Our navigator through this mess of personality is Doc, played by Joaquin Phoenix in another performance that is guaranteeing his place as one of the all-time greats.  He's possibly the most innocent one of all, trying to do the right thing by so many people but only ending up alone in a pale blue room for his troubles.  Phoenix embraces these weightier elements with such sadness it's like the spirit of the departed Philip Seymour Hoffman resides in that quiet space between tears.  Even his physical comedy has a whiff of despair, like the only thing he can contribute to existence anymore is to be beaten up by those living it.

I like the way Phoenix is constantly changing his appearance to find a look that suits him now that he's unsure of his place in the world.

I like the way Phoenix is constantly changing his appearance to find a look which suits him now that he's unsure of his place in the world.

Inherent Vice is what you might call a hangout movie, and considering the humor and vitality of all its characters (even the villains) I wouldn't mind hanging out with any of them.  But this easygoing vibe is possible only because of the work Anderson and editor Leslie Jones put in to make it flow so well.  Jokes told by stoned criminals segue to visual gags about sex clubs before popping back to a dangerous scene of Doc laying next to a bloodied corpse.  No disparate element goes without some kind of visual or verbal connecting point and the sad but funny vibe of Inherent Vice is never lost.  I know bad editing is typically the editing you notice, but I couldn't help it with how perfectly Inherent Vice transitioned between each scene.

Those transitions always made me feel a bit lost at first, but Anderson reconciles these with a great visual device.  The perpetually stoned Doc carries around a notepad so he can make helpful notes like, "Not hallucinating," when receiving vital information.  Good for reminding the audience where they are, and also good for a laugh.  Considering the desolate locations on display we frequently need to laugh.  Doc seems like the last living soul a lot of the time, wandering into big empty buildings, sitting alone in the pale blue light, or walking alone into a smoky corridor.  Anderson's long takes help sell the isolation as we bathe in the sight of this man, with no one to help him, trying to do the right thing.

Inherent Vice is the warmest film Anderson has created.  The lessons on humanity are not the big emotional and ethical ones of Magnolia, but the day-to-day disappointments of trying to live up to an ideal that may have died a long time ago.  It's a noble, doomed, and beautiful venture - one should earn a warm space in the heart of any cinephile.

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Tail - Inherent ViceInherent Vice (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, and Katherine Waterston.

Posted by Andrew

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