Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 effort examples one of those challenges filmmakers like to set themselves from time to time: to film the unfilmable novel. Dan Stephens thinks he pulled it offer with typical PTA swagger…
Regardless of how quizzically you look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s eclectic filmography, it’s difficult to find fault. His feature film debut Hard Eight – with its mixture of desperate characters clinging to the last vestiges of hope – showed the sort of promise many fledgling directors have wet dreams about. It was the beginning of his fascination with ensemble character study and sprawling narrative that comes full circle with 2014’s Inherent Vice. Rooted in neo-noir (or neon-noir going by the poster), this drug-fuelled epic has the anarchic eccentricities of Hunter S. Thompson, packaged with blurry eyes and burning headache into a labyrinthine, enigmatic plot of murder-mystery, whodunit and conspiracy.
Because Anderson sets the bar so high, from an artistic perspective he could be called his own worst enemy. There Will Be Blood, a terrifically paced distillation of pre-American Dream ambition set during the oil boom of the early 20th century, might just be the writer-director’s finest work. Yet, it comes after notable audience favourites such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Even his less desirable work – I’m talking about Punch Drunk Love here – has virtue, not least because it features the finest performance of Adam Sandler’s career. Certainly, Anderson has a knack of getting the best out of his actors – who can forget Tom Cruise scene-stealing in Magnolia?
Indeed, even the considerable talents of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis – such reliable performers – appear to find another gear under the direction of Anderson. It’s a distinct mark of his talent and a telling sign that he’s an actor’s director. It’s therefore unsurprising to see a rejuvenated Joaquin Phoenix follow-up his turn in The Master with a performance that dazzles through instinctive inebriation, gaining surreptitious laughs from the amusing sight of a muddled “private eye” deliberating fact from fiction amidst social chaos.
Phoenix’s performance – its early seventies, Californian “flower child” idiosyncrasies framed by out of control hair and perennially dirty feet – is indicative of Inherent Vice’s sense of place and time. It’s hard boiled entertainment stepping out of the black and white shadows and into the colourful world of counterculture and psychedelia. At its heart is Phoenix’s private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello, a frequent drug user whose errant nonchalance is echoed by a plot that unfurls haphazardly and incoherently. At times this tangled web of truths, half-truths and outright deceit threatens to overload the film in unnecessary ambiguity. However, the confusing melee of leads, dead ends and red herrings shows us that the plot is as stoned as Sportello’s pothead; a befitting aesthetic that recalls Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Anderson has set himself one of those challenges directors like from time to time – to film almost unfilmable novels. Sometimes they work (Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch) but often they don’t (Lynch’s Dune) with Pynchon’s source material relying on converging narratives to create an auteurist manic energy. Anderson makes it click by subtly trimming the plot, reducing its scale but maintaining its multifarious structure, while building upon the cult cynicism of the period to make the idiosyncrasies of the people that inhabit this place and time the absurdist lifeblood by which the big screen Inherent Vice finds its thrust, and importantly, its voice.
He is also suitably cinematic, using the tools not available to an author. Subtly ironic framing coincides with full use of the widescreen panorama and some stunning sepia tones, while the incorporation of Jonny Greenwood’s sombre musical fusion (part ode to classic film noir, part 1970s psychedelic rock with the odd jaunty acoustic guitar) plot a collision course between immoral motive and shameless excess with a wacky, boozy, medicated pursuit of happiness.
Perhaps it doesn’t all come together into a satisfyingly coherent whole but Anderson pulls at so many emotions along the way it’s difficult not to like the assortment of treats he has in store. At one end of the spectrum you have one of the most beautifully orchestrated sex scenes in recent memory. The stunning beauty of Katherine Waterston’s free-spirited Shasta – low lit and disrobed – cryptically beguiles as she taunts her sexual prey with an achingly restrained vocal range. Anderson perfectly bookends this melodious melancholy with the irony of a post-coitus declaration: “It doesn’t mean we’re back together.”
Along with its laissez faire attitude, the film’s acerbic humour is a defining quality. There’s a goofy wit about it that amuses in its unpredictability – from Josh Brolin’s brutish copper Bigfoot deep-throating (and nearly choking on) a chocolate banana to the director’s purposefully lengthened take of a brothel’s itemised menu and its accompanying X-rated painting. That’s not to mention some wonderful cameos, especially Martin Short as horny dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd and Benicio del Toro as a perennially post-hangover lawyer.
The incompleteness of plot and character leave something to be desired, the whole not quite the sum of such pleasing parts, and at times the film lacks narrative thrust with some sequences of prolonged dialogue weighing heavily on its shoulders. Yet, like the dreamy, moonlit stage entry of Doc’s love interest Shasta, there’s an ethereal majesty about proceedings, the defining qualities of which you should never take your eyes off.