Inherent Vice / Paul Thomas Anderson / 2014 / fivestar Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 9.44.13 AM

Active Ingredients: Mix of tones; Exceptional cast; Theme of American identity
Side Effects: Overstuffed; Some jarring narrative transitions

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[Inherent Vice made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 4th. It opens in limited release on December 12th.]

Paul Thomas Anderson’s delirious new acid trip of a film is a hazy descent into a surrealized 1970s L.A. full of drugs, paranoia and combustible cultural tension. It’s absurdist, discursive, elegiac, madcap, laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly tender—and most importantly—expertly balanced. Anderson is one of our most ambitious and talented filmmakers, and Inherent Vice shows that his skill reaches beyond bold cinematography into an impressive mastery of tone.

The coastal California milieu and noir shadings of Inherent Vice have drawn comparisons to films like The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski, but it’s the wild, mercurial blend of tones that distinguishes Anderson’s film from its influences, and frankly any other film you could care to name. Inherent Vice pingpongs from slapstick comedy and high-pitched zaniness to a melancholy romanticism and back again without ever ceding control to the host of forces that tug it in different directions. Some ineffable spirit at the film’s core, much like the benevolence and omniscience of its narrator, holds it all miraculously together.

This push and pull of tonal forces is in many ways the perfect approach to enter the dense world of Thomas Pynchon’s comic novel; it’s like crashing through a window instead of walking in through the front door. Pynchon’s novel, the first of his ever to be adapted to film, features scores of colorful characters whose various schemes and preoccupations tumble into each other as they circle around the disappearance of a wealthy land developer. Anderson maintains this web of kooks, but he’s less interested in the outcome of the plot than in how they all help to articulate a deep cultural schism of the era: the idealism and apathy of the hippie lifestyle and the expectations of mainstream, capitalist America. Are you paying the price to conform or are you moving to the beach?

Under this prism, stoner P.I. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) could be seen as a crusader for the freaks, a fixer for addicts, criminals and other outcasts who can’t turn to the proper authorities. The proper authorities, meanwhile, are represented by Lt. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a square-jawed, crew-cut hippie-hater whose favorite hobby is violating civil liberties. And around this pair swirls the mysterious disappearance nobody is in too much of a hurry to solve, as well as insidious waves of the fears and hang-ups that plague both sides of this culture war.

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For Doc it all begins, as so many stories do, with a girl. Shasta Fay Hepworth. Even her name is an incantation. Shasta. Fay. Hepworth. She’s Doc’s ex, one he hasn’t gotten over, and she materializes one night like an apparition to ask for his help. Shasta is panicked and afraid, and though she doesn’t want Doc to notice, the audience reads her desperation immediately through actress Katherine Waterston’s expressive eyes. Waterston only makes a few appearances (the unwieldy ensemble cast share screentime opposite Phoenix), but her scenes are among the most memorable.

In addition to Waterston’s mesmerizing performance, Shasta’s scenes are the most memorable because it’s within her relationship with Doc that Anderson localizes the film’s strain of nostalgia and loss. This particular tone is just one of many colors Anderson paints with, but it sticks out in Inherent Vice’s stew of absurdism and elevates it far beyond an off-beat lark. Doc and Shasta were in love once, during better days, but those days are gone. He fondly remembers a romantic idle they shared, but it’s only a poignant (and achingly tender) memory. Shasta is a palpable absence in Doc’s life, a dream he can’t seem to shake, and it’s her involvement in the disappearance that keeps Doc stumbling through the case.

Indeed, this feeling of vacancy, a vague, nagging melancholy, permeate the entire world of Inherent Vice, hippie and square alike. Although neither Doc nor Bigfoot would ever dare admit it, there’s a deep dissatisfaction, even an existential emptiness, that defines both of them. They’re both nostalgic for the past and appalled by the world they’re forced to inhabit. So in many ways, the battlelines of this culture war are irrelevant, a false choice masking an utter lack of choice. The characters of Inherent Vice may not see it, but Anderson is uniquely attuned to the profound sense of loss that permeates this vision of America, and he has the skill to draw it out and let it sound in counterpoint with Pynchon’s hysterical dialogue.

In fact, Anderson’s two previous films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, both showed different manifestations of this same American malaise. The three films—period pieces all—are preoccupied with the past, with exploring the unique psychic and cultural identity we’ve inherited from greedy entrepreneurs (There Will Be Blood), wayward veterans (The Master) and frustrated radicals (Inherent Vice). The protagonists of these films are all loners, outsiders, castaways from the American experience, or rather examples of its failure. It’s just that in Inherent Vice everyone’s a castaway in this underworld of massage parlors, drug smuggling and shady dentists.

Whether you buy into the project of America or not, Inherent Vice seems to say, it turns on all of us in the end. It’s an inevitability that’s even hinted at in the film’s title, an actuarial term referring to certain outcomes that are bound to happen eventually, like saying that a window is made to be shattered. Glass breaks, loves are lost and the past keeps fading away.

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