A psychologically troubled novelty supplier is nudged towards a romance with an English woman, all the while being extorted by a phone-sex line run by a crooked mattress salesman, and purchasing stunning amounts of pudding.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Philip Seymour Hoffman
During the psychedelic 60s and 70s Larry "Doc" Sportello is surprised by his former girlfriend and her plot for her billionaire boyfriend, his wife, and her boyfriend. A plan for kidnapping gets shaken up by the oddball characters entangled in this groovy kidnapping romp based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon.Written by
PTA Does Pynchon: Meandering Through Inherent Vice
"I never remember the plots of movies. I remember how they make me feel."
Paul Thomas Anderson, 10/5/2014, "On Cinema Masterclass", New York Film Festival
It's nearly impossible to talk about Inherent Vice, PTA's new stoner noir, without providing some context.
It's crucial to know, for example, that the film is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel. It's also crucial to understand the novel's subject matter and setting: a sprawling conspiracy, which may or may not exist, that involves a real estate mogul, hippies, the LAPD, and a heroin cartel named the Golden Fang, all against the backdrop of Southern California in 1970, the year after the Manson Family Massacre. Some familiarity with Pynchon's literary output–both his prose style and unique narrative structure–is helpful as well, almost required. Finally, to really grasp Inherent Vice, it'd be useful to know PTA's relationship with plot, which can best be understood by reading the quote above and thinking about the trajectory of his career (a career marked by films that have become more and more "plotless").
So, when we put all of this together, what do we get? To a large degree, we get exactly what we should have expected: a filmmaker creating a nearly-flawless adaptation of a nearly-impossible-to-adapt author. Wacky humor, a never ending stream of new characters (some of whom are neither introduced nor explained thoroughly), dialogue that sometimes feels like it's written in code, abrupt jumps between characters and scenes, unapologetically deep cultural references, long and wordy voice-overs, seemingly random occurrences that don't tie together, and a continual sense of paranoia that grows from the viewer (or reader's) inability to decipher what's real and what's imagined. Make no mistake, at the center of Inherent Vice is PTA's unyielding dedication to Pynchon's vision and his desire to put that vision, in full, on screen.
But, PTA's decision to remain so faithful to Pynchon's imagination comes with its faults. The only character we really feel invested in is Doc, the stoner, private eye protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix (Phoenix is in almost every scene and deserves another Oscar nomination for his fantastic work). The other characters end up feeling peripheral, almost like they exist only to drive forward the narrative of Doc's detective search rather than exist as individual characters we should care about. Even Doc's love interest, Sashta, who shows up at Doc's house in the first scene and asks for a favor that sets in motion the goose chase at the heart of the film, is difficult to care about. Her presence in the film, while strong in certain moments, doesn't seem to stick because it's so ephemeral, dreamy, and enigmatic.
This is a flaw sometimes overlooked in novels (see DeLillo or Foster Wallace in addition to Pynchon), but it often distances viewers when done in films. More importantly, it's a criticism totally inapplicable to PTA's previous films. Boogie Nights and Magnolia also centered around ensemble casts, but in those films the viewer deeply cared about each and every character, whether it was Quiz Kid Donnie or pornographer-turned-speaker- salesmen Buck. The difference: PTA creating his own characters from scratch versus PTA capturing another artist's vision in uncompromising fashion.
It's also important to remember that many of Inherent Vice's viewers haven't read the book. I can't imagine how wild of a ride Inherent Vice will be for them. It'll certainly be a confusing experience, somewhere between trippy and surreal, almost Lynchian in its opaqueness and lack of narrative continuity. Perhaps it can best be summed up by the words of a girl who sat behind me at PTA's "On Cinema" talk at the New York Film Festival the day after Inherent Vice's world premiere: "It was good, but don't ask me to tell you what happened." This confusion and general inaccessibility will turn people off, much like The Master left some people enamored and others disappointed and unfulfilled.
Another important piece of context surrounding Inherent Vice, as always with highly anticipated films, is the prism of expectation. Many people predicted (and, I think, hoped) that Inherent Vice would be a return to form for PTA, a Boogie Nights Redux of some sort. They anticipated that the similarities between the films–1970's content, drugs, an ensemble cast–would unlock a time machine that catapulted us back to the earlier stages of PTA's career. Others, myself included, thought the film would split the difference between The Big Lebowski and L.A. Confidential, perfectly balancing the stoner laughs with tense and mystery-driven drama. These expectations were only furthered by Warner Brothers' decision to release a late and deceptively cut trailer, which I can only assume was a marketing decision made in reaction to The Master losing money at the box office.
But, the simple reality of PTA's films is that they are so good and so unique precisely because they can't be predicted. In that sense, Inherent Vice is no different. It's a ludicrously ambitious film crafted by a director who appears more interested in challenging himself as a filmmaker than anything else. It's a film that's long on dialogue but short on plot (shortest on plot of all PTA's films, which may shock some people, especially those who weren't fond of The Master). It's a film that, for two and a half hours, takes its viewer on a journey, leisurely meandering through a certain time and place, all while fluctuating in tone from romantic to paranoid to stoned. While Inherent Vice is neither what some thought it would be nor what many wanted it to be, it's exactly what it is, and more importantly, perhaps it's exactly what it had to be.
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