“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.”
I’d liken watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice to walking through a maze in which every single turn is a new path and feeling you can walk down. It’s based on the book by the famous and reclusive author Thomas Pynchon. I have not read it, but I have read Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ which is an incredible web of conspiracies. His books are dense to the point that you’ll find yourself lost and having to turn back pages. I would say the exact same of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. His last two, There Will Be Blood and The Master are haunting and gargantuan character studies about men lost in some form of the American dream. The former being one of the greatest of all time and the latter being one of the greatest of all time.… He’s that great. I find myself always struggling to choose between There Will be Blood and Boogie Nights as my favorite, but his entire 7 film filmography already has a place in film legend. So how’s his new joint?
Peer through the haze of smoky drugs and injustice to find yourself in a different time and place, but with feelings all too similar. Words are out of reach to describe what’s happening. Scenes pass along like feelings and are then forgotten. Inherent Vice is a shaggy stream of consciousness that funnels the audience through the early 1970’s sun torched California. Paranoia runs ramped, the Manson murders fresh in our minds, Vietnam rages on, capitalism clenches it’s fist ready to throw one final punch, but our lovable stoner hero Larry “Doc” Sportello is here to save a generation. That’s my best attempt to describe what watching the movie is like. It’s built like a classic noir story where a private detective is given a job and he finds himself running through a giant web of plot, characters and lies. Inherent Vice is a stoner mystery-noir. Roll The Big Lebowski and The Graduate into a joint and you’ll have something semi-similar to this. It’s not a film concerned with plot and yet it’s a goddamn road map of plot. PTA’s concocted an ensemble mood piece meant to illicit feelings and entertain with bizarre absurdity.
(That’s all you really need to know. Just go see it if any of that interested you and then come back! Read on if you want more info and to hear me ramble on about what the film is exploring and tapping into. It wasn’t easy to figure out…)
The story begins as Doc’s ex old girl Shasta (Katherine Waterston) comes knocking on his beach house door. She’s the perfect blonde surfer girl. The kind you’d find in a magazine. Doc lives in a world of hazy smoke and sweet memories of old, which Shasta represents and rekindles for him. From there we descend into hilarious gags and sweet nostalgia in this detective mystery. Deeper and deeper we plunge into America’s heart. Nazi’s, dentists, cults, and black nationalists are just a few of the characters we meet along the way. PTA uses tonal shifts for purpose meant to illicit feeling and confusion, which puts us in the head of Doc. As we follow him through the ecosystem of decaying American culture and lost dreams we seem to be as lost as him. Robert Elswit’s cinematography captures creamy sun kissed California. This is a place of lost stardom, paranoia, and a general feeling that something powerful and important has been lost.
The cast is absolutely wild, bonkers, and oddly moving like character out of a Lynch film. It should be noted how hard comedy is top pull off… Besides Joaquin Phoenix, who has created a new legendary character I’d also mention Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Hong Chau, and Martin Short as stand outs. But there’s many more hilarious and bizarrely fun performances. Doc meets loads of colorful characters along the way. He’s always grasping at the next lead, but a puzzle piece is always out of reach. The powers at be are one step ahead and we as an audience are left in the same confused state as Doc. The film is controlled lunacy with a melancholic poison always ready to burst through to the surface. It’s this blend of opposites that makes the movie an incredible and beguiling experience. Example- In scenes where something crazy or hilarious is happening PTA will underscore it with a sad song or melody to bring out the underlying corruption and sadness of the scene. It’s this kind of stuff that just screams CINEMA.
Through most of the movie Doc has exchanges with his arch nemesis/peer Police officer Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played by the always charming and charismatic Josh Brolin. It’s Doc’s hippy vs. Bigfoot’s establishment MURICA Cop. PTA describes them as Tom and Jerry, and that’s exactly what this is. They hate each other, yet they need each other and there’s a certain understood respect. There’s so much thematic weight and slapstick humor put into this relationship that it becomes a symbol of American opposition. Democrats vs. Republicans, South vs. North, old vs. young.
The comedy is flat out bonkers and won’t be to everyone’s taste. Think Zucker Bros. Airplane gags. Every scene made me laugh and in some cases I was busting my gut. The humor ranges from outrageous physical comedy to simple facial expressions that had me giggling. PTA concocts a potent mesh of different styles and tones to mess with our brains. I would even describe quite a bit of the film as surrealist. There are points where I had trouble tapping into a scene because it’s so dense and hard to follow, but I imagine a second viewing may be clearer.
Gone are the gliding camera and forceful imagery of his earlier works. This isn’t a tour-de-force piece of cinema like his last two films. Here he smartly goes simple. He understands that the busy and colorful content needs a more restrained form. During long scenes of dense almost poem like dialogue he just lets the camera slowly slide in and we become hypnotized. Soon you’re laughing and then realize it’s a closeup. It’s in these labyrinthic conversations that we learn characters wants and needs. The slow camera pull in lulls the audience into a drug-like trance. I am convinced that the movie is supposed to be on drugs. What an awesome meeting of form and content! It’s like listening to a drugged out hippy that talks a lot, but he’s got a big heart. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. The soundtrack meshes with the conversations and colorful images like a delicious cinematic cocktail.
The 60’s era soundtrack and colors create a psychedelic trip into not just this time, and place, but into the feeling and very essence of the Vietnam conspiracy and paranoia ridden early 70’s. Doc’s story is one of redemption. He represents a generation on the cusp of cultural revolution, but they’re held back by powers beyond. There’s a mysticism and beguiling tone throughout the film that impies a more mystical subtext. It gives the absurd hilarity of the scenes a strong weight. At times the movie can feel like a mess, but I firmly believe it’s controlled chaos that adds to the experience. Doc is heading through a web of characters and plot to find out what happened to his generation. They were so close to changing the order, but the powers at be stopped them. Each character has found themselves lost and wondering where time went. They’re an embodiment of a generation and culture lost. Doc’s story is one of sweet heroism and sadness.
Getting lost is the point here. We are put in the world with the characters. Look at the world right now. You’ll get a headache trying to understand all the moving parts and motivations of those in control. This is Inherent Vice. An ecosystem of 60’s and early 70’s Vietnam America, with a family of characters lost in time just hoping to one day find hope. A time when the hope of a nation was let out of the bottle. When it gets down to it Inherent Vice is a sentimental film with a big hippie heart. There’s moments of pure nostalgia and memories of happiness that fade away like smoke. Doc’s trying to reconcile this by cruising down the boulevard of regret.
On one level it’s about the ex girl you can’t shake, but it applies that feeling to an entire culture. It’s about the moments and feelings that money can’t buy. Inherent Vice is also an ode to not only 60’s innocence and idealism, but to any era of idealism. The film offers a timeless vision of lost ideals and how it’s even sadder when we’re to busy to realize what we even lost. PTA captures that masterfully while doing some of his most heartwarming work. Genuine sadness and dread loomed over me and I got a lump in my throat eventually. That’s not supposed to happen during stoner comedies… and if it does it should not work on paper. But, ya know, PTA gonna PTA.
In movies what I look for and love most is a distinct voice and the use of all filmmaking tools to create something fresh and new. This is not easy to do and you don’t see it done often, but there are some directors that are just masters of their craft. PTA is one of them. I love entering Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic worlds of dysfunctional families and American heroes trying to find their way through California. It’s perhaps a tad overlong with a few scenes toward the end dragging and the Pynchonian denseness of it will turn some people away, but this is in PTA’s top 3 in my book.
So yeahhhhhhh I think this is an all time great. I didn’t want it to end and I firmly believe this will be a cult classic in a few years. The kind of movie I’ll watch as I eat pizza and drink beer and maybe some other substances… In many ways this is a culmination of PTA’s films. It’s the formalism of There Will Be Blood and The Master meeting the hilarious energy of Boogie Nights and sweetness of Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love. The film is a stoned masterpiece that will be bowed down to for years to come by it’s devoted cult.
Inherent Vice is a hot, shaggy, lovable mess. A lyrical folk poem about memories and times gone. My advice is just to soak in the mood and let it sweep you up in the smoke. Hidden beneath Inherent Vice‘s jokes, sun kissed California cities, hippies, and cops is a nation that’s unaware of the connections underneath that reveal something important was lost and stolen from them. Enter the labyrinth with Doc Sportello as he searches for hope in this folk tale odyssey of sweet hilarious melancholia.
Grade: A+ Add this to the shelf of Paul Thomas Anderson’s other elite masterpieces. A shaggy stream of consciousness takes us into the labyrinthic and hazy 70’s where the memories of old are pieced together. Soon to be a stone cold classic.