Inherent Vice

inherent-vice

Movie a Day Blog thinks maybe you have to be Jeff Lebowski (the Dude, not the old, stern fraud in a wheelchair) to really appreciate INHERENT VICE (2014, Theatrical), since the protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix is a not-distant relative to the title character of the Coen Bros.’ cult favorite, THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998).

Like every other fan of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, I was excited to see his latest treatise on Los Angeles and its varied history, this time based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel. Anderson has had his highs (BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999)), but also some lows; I would place his last, misguided film THE MASTER (2012) in the latter category.

Like THE BIG LEBOWSKI and other modern variants on the hard-boiled Noir writing and filmmaking of the 1940s and 50s, INHERENT VICE has an incomprehensible plot, a cast of memorable oddball characters and more riffs on Film Noir plots, types and settings than you could shake a fedora at. Phoenix plays a medical doctor who somehow is also a licensed private eye, and while his version of Philip Marlowe is closer to Elliott Gould’s in Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) than Humphrey Bogart, the concept remains the same.

A beautiful woman from his past, tantalizingly played by Katherine Waterston, gives him an assignment that honestly I could never get clear. That is true of almost every other plot turn in Pynchon’s notoriously dense narrative, so there are two approaches to INHERENT VICE: go with the flow, or get off the train.

Josh Brolin does his big dumb caveman cop thing again (we’ve seen it before in GANGSTER SQUAD (2013) as Phoenix’s motivator and also his antagonist, in a role that is no more confusing than the rest of this movie.

Actors such as Maya Rudolph and even the B movie veteran Eric Roberts are underused, although there are sparkling moments provided by Hong Chau, Jeannie Berlin and Joanna Newsome. Owen Wilson stumbles in and out of the film, seemingly unsure if he’s actually been cast.

There is always something compelling about Anderson’s storytelling, even when you can’t fully grasp what he’s up to. As with many of his films, repeat viewings have been recommended to more fully comprehend INHERENT VICE.

I learned a valuable lesson with THE MASTER, however; unsure of whether I really grasped what Anderson was after with his exploration of Scientology’s founder and one of itsdupes, I went for a second viewing and left deeply disappointed. I felt THE MASTER was all show and no substance, and that Anderson had become the latest version of the Emperor With No Clothes, a filmmaker with such a devoted following, that he could do no wrong, even if the movie didn’t work on any kind of an audience level.

INHERENT VICE is much more accessible and easier to roll with, and Phoenix again demonstrates that he is one of the most inventive and complicated actors working today. His Doc Sportello is loosey-goosey when it really counts, and paying attention when you think he’s not. He’s enveloped in the same pot haze as his cinematic equivalent the Dude, but he seems sharper and more dedicated to the job, while the Dude just wants his rug back.

I may ignore my own advice and give INHERENT VICE another look, because Anderson is one of the most original and gifted auteurs working today, even if his choice of subject matter is increasingly erratic.

I was not one of the major fans of THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), but there was no denying the visceral impact of every frame in that film, driven by Daniel Day Lewis’ brilliant performance. Maybe two movies in a row with Phoenix was one too many, but it would be interesting to see Anderson work with a greater variety of actors. He got the best film performance of his career from Adam Sandler in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE (2002), and it would be fascinating to see him make a film with Bradley Cooper, say, or Brad Pitt.

I wish I liked INHERENT VICE more than I did, but maybe I just didn’t get in a mellow enough mood. I wish Paul Thomas Anderson was still delivering films that worked the first time you saw them, no matter what influence you were under.

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