Monday, November 2, 2015

Inherent Vice

Like all of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, Inherent Vice is too long. It's messy, unfocused, bordering on directionless. I've not been a fan of his movies until his previous one, The Master, though I've been suspect that I only liked it because it served as a palette cleanser immediately after sitting through Baz Luhrmann's atrocity of The Great Gatsby. Inherent Vice, however, is simply a good movie. No exceptions, qualifiers, or anything else, it's just a good movie. Don't get me wrong, it's messy, unfocused, and bordering on directionless, but still a good movie.

The first movie adapted from the work of celebrated author Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is a slightly comic noir that would've starred Humphrey Bogart in the 1940's, but instead stars Joaquin Phoenix and is set in 1970. Phoenix's Doc Sportello is a private investigator that is tasked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) with looking into goings on involving real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and blah blah blah, things go down the rabbit hole of detective noir from there. Plot rambles and twists and turns in all manner of ways. Anderson handles this with a tricky tone, as the movie is a drama, but with an often comedic tone to scenes in a way that never goes over the edge into being a comedy.

The cast is large, and does good work here, as tends to be the case in Anderson's movies. Phoenix does terrific work, as he tends to do. Doc is just as tricky a character to pull off as Anderson's tone for the movie, and Phoenix nails it just like Anderson did. Doc is intelligent but hiding it, funny, ridiculous but entertainingly so, a Sam Spade for the hippie times and Phoenix gives one of his better performances in the role.

The supporting cast of Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Joanna Newsom (who is wonderful and also serves as the sadly unnecessary narrator), Martin Short, and Reese Witherspoon are uniformly great. Witherspoon especially injects a lot of life, humor, and character into her small role. I wish there'd been more of her.

It is too long. Around the time it should've been wrapping up, it had about 45 minutes left. The dialog, most particularly in the narration, is sometimes overwritten as can be the case with noir movies sometimes. But here it can just seem distracting. But the movie is gorgeously shot by PTA regular cinematographer Robert Elswit. And the soundtrack and score are perfect at setting the mood and never intruding on the plot or characters or pushing for effect.

I've always said that Paul Thomas Anderson was an obviously talented filmmaker who just hadn't put it all together into a total package yet. Weird that I think even with his usual drawbacks, he's succeeded here. It's PTA's least showy movie yet, directorially, and since it's his first that I like without hesitation, I guess that's a good thing.

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