It’s not often I find myself agreeing with opinions expressed in the Daily Telegraph, but reviewer Robbie Collin is spot on, in my view, when he describes Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel as “stupendous” and it gives it, as I do, five stars.
Inherent Vice is arguably Pynchon’s most accessible, least impenetrable, and funniest novel. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) has not only filmed the unfilmable, but has produced a work of cinema every bit as rich, intelligent, zany, quirky, and witty as the original. Pynchon is said to be well satisfied with the result and it is rumoured that he is visible in the background of at least one shot, tho’ at the time of writing no-one has managed to spot him.
Let’s be clear, this is a niche movie masquerading as Hollywood noir and it’s resolute refusal to conform to genre will (and already has) infuriated many. Maltese Falcon or Chinatown it is not. It drew a blank at the Golden Globes and I confidently predict that it will be similarly ignored at the Oscars. But for my money it is the stand-out movie of 2014.
Audiences will inevitably start off by trying to absorb and makes sense of the labyrinthine plot. After about thirty minutes there is a choice to be made: give up and walk out, or give up, sit back and just enjoy the sheer absurdity of the whole thing, allow yourself to be seduced by the perfectly judged recreation of LA circa 1970, wallow in the pot-infused fug and savour a screen play that comes up with more quotable and unforgettable lines than the rest of the year’s output put together. I watched most of this movie with a huge grin on my face. It is a very funny movie - not comic, but humorous. And the humour is dry as dust, deadpan and ironic.
But there are also moments of unexpected tenderness and romance that come at you when you least expect them. As with all really great movies, every craft contributes outstanding work. Johny Greenwood’s music, punctuated by tracks from Neil Young, the Cascades, and Can amongst others, adds great value as does the camerawork of Robert Elswit. And how about this outrageous homage to Leonado as an example of art director and costume designer at the top of their game. The Last Supper with pizza!
Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is unlike any gumshoe you’ve met before. Like most of the inhabitants of Gordita Beach on the edge of LA, Doc spends the majority of his waking hours either stoned or getting stoned. The smell of weed is so all-pervasive I swear you can even get a whiff of it in the cinema. Somehow this aging hippie holds a PI license and manages to do a half-decent job for his clients. When ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) asks for help he doesn’t hesitate. Shasta’s new lover is wealthy real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Trouble is, Wolfmann is connected to a number of nefarious and unsavoury people including white supremacists and criminals. Doc is way out of his depth and it doesn’t help that an old nemesis LAPD Officer ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is on his case. And that’s all the plot you’re getting from me. You’re on your own from now on.
Doc and Bigfoot are the two characters around which the unfeasibly complicated story revolves. Indeed, this could be described as a buddy movie based on a love/hate relationship. Doc with lamb-chop sideburns, fading perm and a nice line in irony, and Bigfoot with too-tight suit, a “John Wayne walk and a flat-top of Flintstone proportions” raise mutual loathing to undreamt of heights. The scenes which feature just the two of them (such as the pancake-eating scene - see below) are deliciously funny. Both Phoenix and Brolin are perfectly cast, and neither ever descend to comic book parody. They are very real.
Just perusing a list of the character’s name is fun and gives you an idea of how Pynchon stays just shy of being ludicrous: Petunia Leeway, Dr. Buddy Tubeside, Riggs Warbling, Agent Flatweed, Agent Borderline and Burke Stodger are just a few. PTA is totally in tune with, and captures perfectly this sense of the faintly ridiculous. How can two FBI agents retain any sort of credibility when they both pick their noses with such relish as the try to put the frighteners on the laconic Doc Sportello?
My guess is that this movie will be a slow-burner. It may disappear from the radar for a while, but I confidently predict that it will return in triumph as one of the great classic movies