Inherent Vice (Warner Bros., R)

film inherent-vice_smIt isn’t so much about the story, but about the details along the way, the ambiance you create.



film inherent-vice 

Some movies feel like they were made specifically for me. I’m not even talking about the movies I go and see and love; I’m talking about the movies where, going in, all of my favorite things are already put together. Inherent Vice is a fairly extreme example of this: It is written for the screen and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who is probably my favorite American director working right now; it is an adaptation of a novel by Thomas Pynchon, one of my favorite authors (and this is the first time any of his novels have been adapted for the big screen); it stars many of my current favorite actors, to include Joaquin Phoenix (who was so good in Anderson’s last film, The Master), Benicio Del Toro, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Josh Brolin; and, in a particularly weird coincidence, it’s the feature film acting debut of one of my favorite modern musicians, Joanna Newsom.

In similarly stacked-for-my-pleasure movies of the past, I often came out of the theater disappointed; movies are almost never helped by your having your hopes up too high for them. That said, I was not disappointed in Inherent Vice. Oddly, I expect a chunk of its audience will be. It’s being marketed as a comedy noir, not unlike The Big Lebowski, and while that’s true to a certain extent, it’s also a determinedly slow, dense, mostly action-free, labyrinthine film that will confuse and/or put off most mainstream moviegoers who wander into it.

So, I’ll give you a tip: Don’t worry about anything so banal as “following” “the plot” the first time you see it, especially if you haven’t read Pynchon’s novel prior to stumbling into the movie theater. Not that it isn’t followable, but hey, did you really understand Chinatown or The Big Sleep the first time you saw them? (How about the second and third times you saw them?) The first few of many, many events that Inherent Vice follows goes like this: Doc Sportello (Phoenix), a reliably addled hippie private investigator circa early-’70s Los Angeles, finds his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, who for many is the standout performance in a movie full of them), in his house unannounced. Shasta is shacking up with Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a millionaire real estate developer who’s in the papers all the time, and she comes to Doc to alert him to a plot to kidnap Wolfmann for ransom—or to stick him in a loony bin, or to bilk him out of his fortune, or some combination therein—and those plotting the event want Shasta in on it with them. Soon after, both Wolfmann and Shasta go missing, and Doc is a “person of interest,” as they say.

Anderson is suited to adapting a Pynchon novel in that both the filmmaker and the novelist know it isn’t so much about the story, but about the details along the way, the ambiance you create. And while the film is lacking in motivation to suck you in how most private dick movies intend to, it doesn’t take long to fall into its atmosphere, either; I’d mark that point a couple of minutes into the film, when Can’s “Vitamin C” is on the soundtrack and the title flashes across the screen. It might happen to you even earlier.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was bitching about how underused Michael Kenneth Williams was in The Gambler, and in just about everything else in his movie career. His screen time in Inherent Vice is even less than that of The Gambler, but here, that’s something more of a pro than a con. Not that I don’t want to see more of MKW, but Inherent Vice has such a richness of ensemble and economy of character that a ton of one-scene roles are filled perfectly and memorably by a name actor. This is one of those films where your favorite performance will change by the day: First, it’s Brolin as Bigfoot Bjornsen, a hippie-hating cop; then it’s Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, perhaps the film’s showiest one-scene wonder; then it’s Treme’s Hong Chau as Jade, a masseuse who seems to always be nearby when something bad is about to go down.

Which leads me to another point: Paul Thomas Anderson is the best filmmaker in the world right now at constructing a great scene. (Steve McQueen’s giving him a run for his money, but Anderson still has the lead.) There’s nothing so memorable here as The Master’s first processing sequence or bathroom freakout, nor the “Sister Christian” scene in Boogie Nights (as if he’s ever going to top that one), but still, Inherent Vice has more than its share of great scenes. The first of these comes early, when, in one long, unshowy shot, Doc goes to Chick Planet Massage and meets Jade for the first time. It’s a complicated, hilarious scene, capped off by a blink-and-you-miss-it bit of physical comedy genius from Phoenix.

That’s another thing Anderson’s the best at: directing actors. Everyone’s always at their career best when working with him. There are a lot of things Anderson’s the best at, really; making films I’m bound to like is only one of many. | Pete Timmermann

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