Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review: "Inherent Vice" is a Head Trip of Culture Clash with Wit and Expertise

Director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus Inherent Vice is almost too dedicated to the book. How so? The opening monologue by Sortilege (Joana Newsom) is word-for-word the first paragraph of Thomas Pynchon's book. Where in some cases simply reciting text may seem like a lazy offense, this time it reads as a testament to the creatively slurred together sentences of this 60's ode to film noir and drugs. This is the first Pynchon film adaptation and thankfully Anderson knows his stuff by keeping the words the same and using his dry, confusing tone to once again prove why he is one of the greats in modern cinema.

The story follows Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is a private investigator who has a drug problem and also relationship problems with his old lady Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston). From there, the journey through Southern California becomes one of hi-jinks involving drug smuggling, Nazis, surf rock bands and mental institutions. It is a creative look at the dying 60's culture with the film opening up on a beach front property in 1970. With a lot going on, it is easy to get lost in the film, both visually and in narrative. 

Many things are evident about the film simply in the way that Doc dresses. At the start of the film, he is seen in a very disheveled state with an afro that is almost too droopy to be one. As the story progresses and he gives into temptation, he begins to dress more conservatively and even care about the world around him. A lot of the charm comes from the reliably physical performance of Phoenix, whose hippie culture causes him to spazz out in the face of government and constantly question his own mental state. His heart is in the right place, but his flimsy stoned demeanor helps to tear apart the pretensions of the story and leave something more pure. This isn't really about solving the crimes, but more of an excuse to explore Southern California's 60's culture in the most casual and cool way possible.

Leading us through the maze is Anderson, whose admiration for the long shots and finding value in the most casual of conversation allows the film to string along at a meditative pace. With a cool soundtrack and a lot of bizarre moments, this film may not have the weighty subtext of The Master or the visual aura of There Will Be Blood, but this is Anderson playing around and giving something wholly unique and refreshing. There hasn't been too many great alterations on the film noir genre in quite some time. With the help of Pynchon's infectious text, he manages to make something along the lines of The Big Sleep: an apt comparison considering both film's reputations on being out right confusing. As stated, I don't believe that Inherent Vice is a film worth getting wrapped up in the details so much as the culture clashes that came head-to-head in 1970.

Give the film a chance and it will leave a strange smile on your face. While deeply rooted in drug-hazed humor, it also is one of the best compiled films with countless background details and performance tics that reward multiple viewings. The dialogue grabs you immediately and serves as a great nostalgic ride back to the 60's with a director whose fascination in Californian history seems endless. If he isn't the Martin Scorsese of west coast cinema, then nobody is. While this film doesn't quite hold the same quality as the director's past few films, he still knows how to have a good time by creating a film that is rich with atmosphere, wit, slapstick, drugs, sex and life. Even if it isn't great, it still is better than likely any other director wishing to challenge a novelist as heady as Pynchon. 

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