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Inherent Vice

For a writer/director with such a remarkably distinct vision, Paul Thomas Anderson sure has created a very diverse body of work throughout his nearly 20 year career. With modern classics like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master he has not only established a reputation as one of our best filmmakers, but also chronicler-in-chief of California’s storied history and the damaged souls who populate it. True to form, his latest film, and first literary adaptation, Inherent Vice, based on the novel by acclaimed author Thomas Pynchon, is both very much like his previous efforts and a bold artistic departure from them.

The movie’s style and subject matter recalls similarly themed LA neo-noirs with a strong counterculture bent; imagine a cross between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown with a touch of Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski and you’re definitely on the right track. Set in California during the early 70s, Inherent Vice follows the misadventures of stoner private detective “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, continuing his streak of brilliant lead performances in recent years), who gets caught up in a convoluted web of corruption and crime after an old flame, the beautiful Shasta (a revelatory, show-stealing Katherine Waterston), returns to his life, seeking help for her billionaire business mogul boyfriend, Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). She suspects Wolfman’s gold-digging wife intends to have him committed to a mental institution as part of a larger conspiracy. When both Shasta and Wolfman turn up missing shortly after, Doc descends into the city’s seedy underbelly to solve the mystery of their disappearance. The film’s superb cast (no surprise given Anderson’s skill with actors) includes Benecio del Toro as Doc’s lawyer, Josh Brolin as the LAPD detective who serves as Doc’s nemesis/double, Owen Wilson as a drug addled informant turned missing person, Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s tightly wound sometimes-lover, Martin Short as a cocaine snorting dentist, and Joanna Newsom as a cool hippie chick whose sweet, laid back voice-over provides the film’s signature narration.

Boasting a 148 minute running time, Inherent Vice is remarkably faithful to Pynchon’s novel. Long considered an author whose work is un-filmable, Anderson’s attempt is certainly fascinating, if not entirely coherent. Like the point of view reflected in Pynchon’s original text, Inherent Vice is not simply a stoner story, it’s a stoned story; one that starts off relatively straightforward and simple, only to become intentionally muddled and confused as it goes forward, as if the plot itself took one too many tokes along with our pothead protagonist. This is also reflected in Anderson’s loose, freewheeling directorial style. Often so muscular as to constantly draw attention to his mastery of the medium, here his trademark stylistic flourishes (bombastic music provided by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, extended-single-take-steadicam shots, and expert use of montage) are all present, but surprisingly subdued. It’s a change of pace for Anderson, just as it was for author Pynchon, but the result is a movie that makes you feel a good buzz all throughout. Credit for that must also go to the great production design and era-appropriate soundtrack that make every locale on Doc’s journey feel like a completely lived-in space and not just a retro tour through 70s camp.

Still, those familiar with the novel shouldn’t be surprised by the occasional turns into darkness Inherent Vice delves into, even as it thoroughly entertains. The California Doc inhabits isn’t the hippie paradise romanticized during the summer of love; that way of life having slowly been strangled by corrupt institutions whom idealists like Doc are powerless to topple. It’s a theme that’s obviously close to Anderson and Pynchon, each American masters and iconoclasts, and while both the book and film Inherent Vice might rank as minor works amongst each of their respective canons; it nevertheless stands as a bittersweet eulogy to a very particular American Dream. Groovy, man.

Watch the trailer for Inherent Vice

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