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Inherent Vice (2014)

Pynchon a Loaf

"Remind me why I should give a shit again?"

--Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice

In the end-of-the-year package-push that is Awards Season, I sometimes receive promotional booklets in the mail, along with whatever film a given studio wants to promote. I didn't read the attractive, oversized collection of character bios that came with Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice until after I watched the movie--when it became invaluable to writing this review.

I'm unfamiliar with Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel (which Anderson adapted for the screen) but the promo material did more to spark my interest than the actual film. Maybe I shouldn't call them "bios": a still of each actor, in character, appears over a descriptive passage from the book. With a few sparse paragraphs, Pynchon paints a dreamy, gritty, and paranoid portrait of early-70s California, which Anderson mistakenly (or brazenly) ignores in favor of set design, costuming, and helping his asleep-at-the-wheel cast shine through artificial, heaped-on sleaze.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, a pot-prone P.I. who gets a visit from his distraught ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She wants Doc to investigate the disappearance of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who may have been wrongfully committed to an insane asylum by his wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her lover, Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson). The case also draws the attention of local super-detective/aspiring TV star, Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who alternately helps and hinders Doc's investigation, while cooking up plans of his own.

That's the most basic overview I can give and, aside from the resolution of the Wolfmann case, the entire substance of the film. In premise and practice, Inherent Vice is as formulaic as every other hard-luck-dick/femme fatale story you've ever seen--or ever seen parodied. So, why is it two-and-a-half hours long? Simply put, Anderson (not Pynchon, necessarily) buries his plot under countless, meandering scenes that have little to do with the problem presented our de facto hero at the outset. This is literally a movie comprised of maguffins, helmed by a Teflon auteur of the highest order.

Doc talks at length with junkies, feds, informants, neo-Nazis, king-makers, dentists, and Lord knows who else--each with impossibly colorful names that register but don't stick from scene to scene.* They're not meant to, and neither are the myriad plot threads. I suppose the somewhat knowing look on a certain character's face during the final shot might reveal a deeper layer of complexity--but by the time I caught it, I'd run the marathon and just wanted a cold blast of water to keep from passing out.

I should clarify that "asleep-at-the-wheel" comment. Inherent Vice is crammed with talented actors whose mere presence delighted me as a fan of their work. Michael Kenneth Williams, Jenna Malone, Martin Donovan--I could go on about the movie's frequent, unexpected micro-blasts of warm fuzzies. Sadly, the actors quickly wear out their welcome, falling into the same narcoleptic style adopted by Phoenix and Waterston.** Only Brolin manages to inject some personality into his character; as his hard-nosed cartoon cop melted into a pool of disillusionment and drugs, I wished to God this had been Bigfoot's movie.

Anderson's biggest problem is that the material has been more effectively mined in other movies--not just covered, mined. Inherent Vice lifts thematically from The Big Lebowski (stoner gets in way over his head with nefarious high-society types), L.A. Confidential (showbiz-obsessed detective gets in way over his head with the corrupt forces upstairs), and, to a lesser extent, Get Shorty (the reluctant protagonist interviews a parade of colorful characters while stumbling his way to victory). The parallels aren't perfect, but it's hard to watch Inherent Vice without thinking of films that have already said the same things--with voices that, despite dire undertones, infected the audience with their creators' mischievous humor.

The multiple plots, subplots, asides, and ham-handed social commentary,*** causes the movie to simultaneously flail and drift, half-heartedly grasping at a reason to exist. The fact that no one has adapted Pynchon before is not an excuse to be boringly faithful. Like the water planet in Interstellar, Inherent Vice has tremendous breadth, but is plagued by an oppressive narrative gravity and shallowness that requires one to take a break every few minutes and decide if forging ahead is worth the effort.

Perhaps Pynchon wrote his book in a pop bubble (as the dated yet anachronistic references to Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street suggest). Or maybe Anderson did his best to tart up a skeletal nag. Regardless of the effort, the result is a glossy yet forgettable misstep in a career marked by (until recently) unforgettable characters, stories, and the raw elation of epic, daring filmmaking. In a sad turn of events, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson appear to have temporarily swapped places.

Where is this movie's Daniel Plainview? Its Eddie Adams? Its Frank T.J. Mackie? Who is the soul of Inherent Vice? Joaquin Phoenix reprises his disconnected, mumbling schtick from I'm Still Here, but his character suffers a lack of contrast; he's just another spaced-out dude looking for something--could be a land developer, could be his car keys. Whatever, it's all groovy, man.

To be clear, I can't fault the film on any technical level. Anderson is a brilliant artist who brings a crew of A-players to the court every time. Inherent Vice looks great, sounds great, and feels expensive, but so do Michael Bay's Transformers movies--which incur a derision that Anderson's recent work does not. Despite similar run-times inflated by multiple, pointless storylines; razor-thin characters; and an unofficial invitation by the director to tune out, it is blasphemy in some circles to compare Anderson and Bay. Chalk that up to branding, I guess.  I submit that if one were to take Anderson's name off of this picture and show it to an audience, those who stayed awake through the end would ask, "What's with this art-house-Lebowski crap?"

Lest you think I'm just being a hater, I should mention that I watched the film twice. Yep, like Alex DeLarge, I submitted myself to another round of cinematic waterboarding--just to make sue I hadn't missed something. I enjoyed Inherent Vice slightly more the second time around, simply because I knew it would eventually end. The jokes still didn't land, the characters still didn't leave an impact, and the main plot's resolution (such as it was) still threatened another forty minutes of Return of the King-style housekeeping.

On the plus side, Pynchon's lush language struck me from the pages of that promotional booklet, and I may pick up his novel sometime. My infatuation with Anderson is officially over, though, and I predict a heavy-lidded, Doc Sportello shrug the next time I hear he's got a movie coming out.

*I invite you to use the names Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Coy Harlingen in a new drinking game called "Pynchon Character or Star Wars Alien?".

**The exception is Martin Short, whose character's manic, coke-craving energy becomes exhausting on an entirely different level.

***Did you know that every cop in the 70s hated hippies?

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