It’s hard to imagine anyone successfully ever adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel and, up to this point, no one even attempted such a thing. Probably with a good reason. The wild imagination of inventive American author would only feel restricted and tamed within the boundaries of film medium. Fortunately, in 2009 the author published his latest work, the curiously straightforward novel Inherent Vice. It is, of course, only simple by his own standards. From the perspective of genres, it might prove to be slightly too elusive but it also serves as a perfect vehicle for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest opus.
The resulting film is, for the most part, a stunningly accurate adaptation of Pynchon’s prose. Which, of course, makes it both admirable and frustrating. It seems almost pointless to recount the labyrinthine plot in much detail for most of it almost serves almost entirely as an excuse to play around with characters, moods and conventions. Joaquin Phoenix yet again conjures his quirky alter ego and creates another bizarre character in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. He plays a hippie private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello who starts not one but several different investigations. One of which is related to the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and the other is about finding a supposedly dead husband (Owen Wilson) of former heroin addict (Jena Malone).
Now, that short description is both accurate and terribly misleading. It would appear that Inherent Vice will follow a noir cinema pattern of investigation and resolve all its threads by the end. Not so. While the cases reach what one might call an end, there is no real resolution to this story. And, along the way, Anderson follows Pynchon’s lead and unleashes a series of seemingly random sets of characters and events to spice things up even further. That’s where we’re introduced to Doc’s relationship with police officer “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), the mystery of Golden Fang, secret cults hiding in a asylum, loan sharks and… “dentists on trampolines”.
It might be one of the most puzzling major films to be distributed by big studio ever since… The Master. An average audience member will have a hard time with this film, even if its premise is relatively straightforward from reading a synopsis. The only thing to hold on to is an endlessly entertaining set of performances from the excellent ensemble cast. In any case, it’s interesting to see Paul Thomas Anderson turn from his early, fairly straightforward, mannerisms and venture into the more incomprehensible auteur side that he displayed with his last pictures.
While all the previous films from Anderson were notable for their visual stylishness, there is an almost ascetic quality to his latest opus. Boogie Nights was filled with Scorsese-like tracking shots, as was Magnolia. There Will Be Blood created an impressive epic out of seemingly stark landscape. Even character-heavy The Master inserted some cinematic grandeur into its psychologically tormented narrative. Not so much with Inherent Vice. The director’s regular collaborator cinematographer Robert Elswit creates a much smaller film this time, almost entirely focused tightly on its characters, with many lengthy dialogue scenes being covered in one long take. For some, it might be the sign of Anderson’s losing a grip on technical side of things, an asset that created some of the most memorable images in his previous work. On the other hand, it’s that lack of “money shots” can also serve as a proof that this director is indeed growing up and getting tired of endless showmanship for its own sake.
The sign of maturation can be also gleaned from the choice of music. Much has been written about Jonny Greenwood’s aggressive accompaniment for There Will Be Blood and The Master. Both great scores but one could be wondering if that’s the only type of music we can expect from this collaboration. Inherent Vice is decidedly more nostalgic and brings a surprising touch warmer tones as well as nods to the noir genre. As such, it’s a sign of Greenwood’s versatility and it helps to ground this film’s mad narrative in something more emotionally relatable.
All in all, it’s both a departure and a throwback for director Paul Thomas Anderson. The film lets him reclaim his sense of humour and offers lightness absent from some of his recent works. One the other hand, it also follows his more auteur path (started on with The Master), in which he abandons what might be perceived as a genre convention or clear and coherent narrative. And because of that, Inherent Vice is due to alienate a lot of his audience even further. Which, in some way, might be the best things about it. Frustratingly fascinating.
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