Criticwire’s New Classic series examines films released in the last ten years posed to stand the test of time.
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Criticwire Average: B+
“Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.” — Sortilege, “Inherent Vice.”
Where to begin with “Inherent Vice,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s melancholic stoner epic-cum-American character study? It’s tempting to start by breaking down the intricate plot into easily digestible pieces, but the classically Pynchonian narrative filled with conspiracies, eccentric characters, and twists leading to dead ends was never really the “point” of the film. Another route is to contrast its comic surface with its tragic undercurrent, how PTA, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and editor Leslie Jones created this sun-drenched, often goofy mystery that masks a painful eulogy of the 1960’s progressive culture. Yet another way is to discuss the film’s reception with relation to its perceived incoherence, or its digressive mood, or the crucial tonal shift in the film’s last third. Despite working within a “light” genre, “Inherent Vice” is a big film, as big as PTA’s previous two films “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” only with a narrower scope. With “Inherent Vice,” PTA crafts a tender elegy for a certain strain of American idealism, a gentle tribute to Hunter Thompson’s high and beautiful wave just after it broke and rolled back.
From the very first shot of Gordita Beach as Joanna Newsom’s Sortilege narrates the inciting incident, a thick melancholy hangs in the air as strong as pot smoke. Private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) agrees to help his ex-old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) protect her new real estate developer lover Mickey Wolffman (Eric Roberts) from being committed to an asylum, but it’s just as much out of concern for her well-being as it is the chance to relive their relationship. PTA presents 1970 as a paranoid time, when heroin had poisoned joy-seeking dopers, cults were working in tandem with smugglers to keep Americans hooked on escape, and authority was making a big comeback in the national consciousness. Nevertheless, Doc abides (like a certain other stoner stuck out of time), keeping his head down and working his cases the best he can, but a chance meeting with Shasta sends him journeying through the romantic past, such as a rain-soaked Ouija board adventure for pot that leads nowhere but still has a happy ending. It’s not just Doc who quietly pines for the past, but also his part-time enemy/trusted confidant Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a renaissance detective holding onto a painful wound, who also silently mourns the loss of certain values no longer in parlance. Interestingly enough, it’s only Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a heroin-addicted saxophone session player turned police informant/freedom fighter, who grieves over the present but knows his past was also quite dirty and rotten. “Inherent Vice” can be viewed as a study of American archetypes struggling to hold onto something that has already slipped from their fingers.
But they all know it’s too late, even if they don’t want to admit it. “Inherent Vice’s” most crucial, but most difficult scene is when Shasta goads Doc into sex after returning from her “three hour tour” with Mickey Wolffman on the Golden Fang boat. Shasta monologues in the nude about how she was used and abused by Mickey and his friends who treated her body like drugs, implicitly detailing how a free love mentality can be corrupted by those who use it as a means to an end. Critic Glenn Kenny accurately describes how the “curdled eroticism” of the scene illustrates these “two characters in a throughly broken context, communicating through various languages of power that they never wanted to learn or maybe even acknowledge in the first place.” When Doc finally caves and aggressively fucks Shasta, it’s designed to be a illusion-shattering moment. PTA highlights the dark shadows, keeping focus on Shasta’s tear-stained face as both she and Doc accept the harsh realities through action: The ’60s are dead; the drugs have gone bad; the wave has broken. Instead of the two sharing kisses in the rain, they’re sharing jaded sneers and aggressive power struggles. PTA lingers on this moment long enough for it to burn in the memory and to stub out the pleasant comic vibes, only for it to fade into the next scene like a wisp of smoke. Life rolls on even when the mellow is harshed.
It’s a testament to PTA and Phoenix (who for my money gives his career-defining performance here, even though “The Master” required more of him) that “Inherent Vice” feels so warm, basking in a beautiful, loving haze that comes just after the third hit. Jones’ digressive editing folds Doc’s multiple adventures with massage parlor employees (Hong Chau), coke-snorting dentists (Martin Short), and bat-wielding loan shark assassins (Peter McRobbie) into a fun, stoned film that one can easily dip in and out of. Besides the laugh-out-loud comedy — Phoenix mumbling and slurring words, Brolin sucking on a frozen banana, any scene with Sauncho (Benicio Del Toro) or Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn), and many many more — there are some moments of ineffable beauty that stand as the best of PTA’s career. It exists in the shot of Shasta walking into the water, or in Hope Harlingen, Coy’s wife, embracing Doc right before he walks out the door to try to find her husband; or in Doc’s lonely phone call to occasional squeeze/assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon). It’s in the aching sounds of Johnny Greenwood’s score, not to mention the wistful croon of Neil Young on the soundtrack. It’s in the broken faces and kind gestures that permeate the film’s surface, and the broken hearts that lie not so far beneath. “Inherent Vice” is baked poetry, existing in the moment when you’ve realized that you’ve cruised the boulevards of regret far too long, and it’s time to get back on that freeway towards an uncertain future yet again.