If it is importantnay, crucialfor a critic to give his or her honest, balanced, hopefully unbiased opinion on every film reviewed, it is equally imperative that one be able to reassess said works and admit when a personal error or change of heart has been made. This is what has happened with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," and in a big way. When I first saw the film in early-December 2014 via an awards DVD screener, I not only had issues with what I watched, but actively and quite vehemently disliked it. Those feelings can still be read below. While they are no longer relevant, they do represent just how divisive and misunderstood this psychedelic trip through 1970 Los Angeles is, and how uniquely challenging author Thomas Pynchon's narratives can be. A second viewing (and maybe more) is required for the densely written "Inherent Vice," the picture working on so many different levels that it is impossible to take it all in the first time. Many detractors have complained that the plot is incoherent, but it's not; it simply requires that its audience pay attention and be an active participant.
Moreover, as sprawling as the story and ensemble are, they are in service of a much more expansive vision built by Pynchon and brought to bold visual life by Andersona dreamy, aching, shell-shocked, dope-infused, post-Manson landscape kneeling perilously on the ledge of a new, ever-changing decade. Indeed, the film is not about where the plot goes, but about the kaleidoscopic journey its sincere lead protagonist, private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (a superb Joaquin Phoenix), takes. The rest of the sparkling ensemble are still arguably underused, but they remain memorably colorful individuals acting as invaluable shading to a far grander, increasingly entrancing canvas.
A comedy wavering between dark and zany. A seductive film noir
that takes Doc's investigation down a labyrinthine array of unexpected paths and blind alleys. A bittersweet romance not only between Doc and the mysteriously beguiling girl who got away, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), but with a time, a place and a way of life that would never be quite the same again. It is all here, woven beautifully by Anderson's sure-eyed prowess, cinematographer Robert Elswit's lush, atmospheric, sun-dappled lensing, and an exhilarating soundtrack that pulls it all together. When I initially saw "Inherent Vice," it turned me off, perhaps because it was playing to such a different beat and didn't adhere to my expectations of what it was going to be. In the months since, however, its memory stuck with me. Revisiting the film on Blu-ray was eye-opening, an entirely new experience where everything was the same, yet different. Now, suddenly, I spoke the language, and recognized the restless beauty in what Anderson has captured. Subsequent viewings, no doubt, will only illuminate its place as a deceptively messy but meticulously controlled cinematic wonder, an undervalued gem ripening and enduring with age and perspective, destined for rediscovery.
Based on Thomas Pynchon's twisty-turny, marijuana-hazed 2009 novel, "Inherent Vice" has been described as next to impossible to adapt into an accurate feature-length representation of the author's notoriously dense writing. If any filmmaker working today could possibly crack this riddle, it would seem to be Paul Thomas Anderson, an auteur specializing in multilayered euphoria who proved with 1997's "Boogie Nights," 1999's "Magnolia
," and 2002's "Punch-Drunk Love
" that he knows his way around the Californian landscape. This assumption would be dismayingly incorrect. Were it not for his name in the credits, it would be impossible to guess that someone who has helmed so many vividly stimulating works of art could be responsible for something so bewilderingly lifeless. The deceptively complex plot strands woven together have led some viewers to claim it is difficult to understand, but the real issue is that there is nothing that needs understanding. The central thrust of the story, in which private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) sets out across 1970 Los Angeles to track down missing powerhouse real estate developer Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and Larry's former girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), leads to a lot of dead ends and revelations so unexceptional they feel like bad jokes without punchlines.
A pulpy, semi-psychedelic film noir
of arch posturing and no soul, "Inherent Vice" collapses under the lugubrious, verbose weight of each new scene. Save for a few instances where supporting characters are instructed to be too quirky by a half, the film just sits there for 148 minutes. The camerawork is unimaginative, the lackadaisical editing saps every last speck of energy from the proceedings, and the poor actors (all of them capable of doing fantastic work) are so underutilized in their shallow roles it is enough to make one angry. Joaquin Phoenix (2013's "Her
") might be incapable of giving a performance that isn't at least interesting to watch take shape, but even he is stranded inside the framework of a protagonist who never really makes a case for why an entire movie should be about him. That leaves two memorable smaller turns to steal their too-few scenes: the irresistible Hong Chau (HBO's "Treme"), as massage parlor worker Jade, and musician-turned-actor Joanna Newsom, whose raspy voice and fresh singular look make her ideal as earthy narrator and guide Sortilège. It is difficult to imagine how Paul Thomas Anderson devised the finished product that is "Inherent Vice." His visual connectivity, romantic filmic sensibility, and electric narrative drive have vanished without a trace in a thick, aimless, drug-filled fume of smoke.