Paul Thomas Anderson took five years to make his 2007 oil epic There Will Be Blood. He took another five years to make 2012’s Scientology-inspired The Master. He banged out his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in two, and you can feel the difference—in the best possible way. The two films that preceded it marked the filmmaker’s transition from wunderkind to Serious Artist; by turns wrenching, challenging, and borderline impenetrable, they plunged the depths of American history and the American soul. Vice, by contrast, is a slang-y, breezy lark, a picture whose two-and-a-half-hour running time, Oscar-friendly release date, and premiere as the Centerpiece selection at the New York Film Festival make it sound like a more important movie than it is—or, more importantly, than Anderson seems to think it is. After a decade spent making two films that are like pressure cookers, he was clearly ready to blow off some steam.
This is normally the part where some kind of plot summary would be appropriate, but that seems especially fool’s-errand-ish here. It’s one of those dizzyingly complex detective yarns that seems to take pleasure in introducing every new ripple, so that by the time a supporting character offers up an explanation like “they’re an Indochinese heroin cartel,” you find yourself just nodding and grinning; yes, of course they are. As the sprawling narrative uncoils, “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles into kidnapping, adultery, land development, drug smuggling, politics, Red-baiting, surfer music, police corruption, and “dentists on trampolines,” but the basic ingredients are simple: an honorable private detective, and the girl who broke his heart and now needs his help. Everything past that is just gravy.
It’s not that Anderson (and, presumably, Pynchon) don’t care about the rest—it’s that it’s not what’s important. This is a movie about characters, a variety show where everyone gets to come in for a scene or two and perform their specialty: Josh Brolin as a hard-case “Renaissance detective” who moonlights as a struggling actor, Benicio del Toro as a wise but only vaguely legit attorney (forging a connection to a similar role in another drug-soaked adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Reese Witherspoon (reuniting with her Walk the Line co-star) as the deputy D.A. who gets a thrill from slumming it with the dirty hippie, Martin Short as a sleazy dentist with a weakness for skirts and a bigger one for white powder.
Tying it all together is Joanna Newsom as Sortilège, a supporting character in the book whom Anderson adapted into the film’s narrator. “For a long time, I was told if you used voice-over, that’s a no-no,” Anderson explained at a press conference this morning, following the film’s press and industry screening. “And I think the premise is that you have to have your characters do your work for you—that you can’t rely on a narrator to do it… And I was always paranoid to do it until now. There was so much good stuff that the character could say that was from the book, that was helpful to the story, that wouldn’t step on it or irritate it or subtract from it, but would hopefully add to it, at its best.” His instinct was correct; it is helpful to have a guide through this labyrinth, as well as to unfurl a delicious turn of phrase like “she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on Doc that he couldn’t read at all.”
She’s also not merely a voice-over, but an on-screen presence, occasionally turning up a sounding board, a voice of reason, or to offer encouragement (“You’re doin’ good, Doc.”) Sometimes, though, her presence seems imagined, a kind of Jiminy Cricket conscience, the natural byproduct of the copious amounts of marijuana Doc ingests. It’s from this habit that the picture picks up most of its laughs—and this is probably Anderson’s funniest picture to date, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously for low comedy, sex jokes, and even the occasional pratfall. (Though to be fair, he gets just as many laughs from Phoenix’s unflappable reaction shots, each of them held just so.)
Yet Doc’s druggy haze is most keenly felt in the film’s particular style, from the mellow color to the shaggy, relaxed vibe to the rambling narrative, which ends up resembling a lengthy story told by a particularly chatty stoner—to the extent that we can’t help but wonder how much of this is just in his head. There’s an assistant-type character, for example, who wanders in totally unexplained and wanders out the same way; people drift in an out of the lens’ focus, just as they do the protagonist’s.
In that way, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly remind younger moviegoers of The Big Lebowski, when in fact they’re both working from the same common set of references and echoes. At the NYFF presser, Anderson confirmed the inspiration of a legendarily obtuse detective yard: “I saw The Big Sleep and I couldn’t follow any of it, and it didn’t matter, because I just wanted to see what would happen next anyway.” The land-development angle recalls Chinatown, of course, but the biggest single influence is Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which similarly told the story of a private eye in a ‘70s-era Los Angeles that had left him behind. Pauline Kael called the Altman film “a high-flying rap on Chandler and the movies and that Los Angeles sickness,” and that’s a pretty apt description of Inherent Vice as well. (He also throws in a terrific shot that serves as a visual quotation of “The Last Supper,” and, thus, a double reference to Altman’s M*A*S*H as well.)
This is not to say that the picture is all echoes; Anderson is both commenting on those earlier films and doing his own thing, adding to the tradition rather than merely lifting from it. Most of his touches work, particularly the occasional references to the Manson Family, which underscore the story as a chronicle not just of a scene, but of its deterioration. And a few bits don’t play at all, particularly a long scene late in the film between Doc and former love Shasta (Katherine Waterston) that bites off more psychosexual text and subtext than it can chew (it’s an interesting scene; it’s just in the wrong movie). And with all of the tools at his dispoal, Anderson can’t quite recapture the effortless, electric energy of his last ‘70s ensemble piece, Boogie Nights.
But I’m thankful for Inherent Vice, flaws and all—as co-star (and significant other) Maya Rudolph noted Saturday, “what I love so much about Paul’s work is that it’s anything and everything, and yet it’s always his.” In that Long Goodbye review, Kael wrote of its creator, “An Altman picture doesn’t have to be great to be richly pleasurable.” Change out the names, and that’s as accurate a summary as any for this bizarre, punchy, freewheeling goof.
Inherent Vice screens tonight at the New York Film Festival. It opens December 12 in limited release and goes wide on January 9.