Friday, December 12, 2014

Inherent Vice.

To the uninitiated (of whom this writer remains one, for now) the novels of Thomas Pynchon carry a reputation. Playfully dense stories, with fractured protagonists chasing a goal thru labyrinthine plots, loaded with bizarre conspiracies and colorfully-named characters who seem to have stepped, fully embodied, from dreams. All permeating a convoluted narrative that nonetheless lands with impact, and grace.

With this sketchy, probably inaccurate, overview in mind, it makes perfect sense that the first earnest attempt to mount an adaptation of a Pynchon novel would be made by Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson’s films, as cinematic as they are, are rife with a novelist’s attention to plotting and period detail. His original works, including 2012’s The Master, take a patient and detailed approach to their characters more commonly seen in literature. And the epic heft of There Will Be Blood (adapted from Upton Sinclair's Oil!) derives as much from Anderson's novelistic grasp of the entire picture as it does from Daniel Day-Lewis' intense performance. To immerse oneself in Anderson's work is to marvel at how expertly, and gradually, his characters are revealed, a marked contrast to characters in too many other movies who reveal themselves all at once.

And so Inherent Vice offers a period story, in which a detective, hired by an ex-girlfriend, chases a disappeared real estate mogul through early 70s Los Angeles, allied with denizens of that city's underground, beset by a rogues gallery of grotesques and minor criminals, and dogged every step of the way by a square-jawed, corrupt cop. Though it's rife with absurdist humor which I believe can be safely attributed to its source, the movie is set firmly in an established lineage of L.A. gumshoe yarns, from Polanski's Chinatown to Altman's The Long Goodbye right up to the Coens' The Big Lebowski

Lebowski looms largest over this movie, which amplifies the Coens' stoner humor to the point where we feel stoned watching the movie unfold. This is certainly abetted by Vice's perpetually stoned (yet surprisingly pro-active and competent) hero Larry "Doc" Sportello. Inherent Vice is as rooted in the perceptions of its protagonist as its predecessors, and so we see the world as Doc does: sometimes through a metaphoric fog, sometimes through a literal one, and always with something just slightly off-kilter within the scene. Joaquin Phoenix once again gives his all playing a character we haven't ever quite seen in a movie before. Just as Anderson deftly captures a wealth of authentic period detail without fetishizing it, so does Phoenix not let a single aspect of Doc define his whole performance. His sideburns, his stoner demeanor, his attempts at disguise, his beleaguered interactions with authority figures, are all just facets (and far from the only ones) of a rich, fully embodied character.

A number of veteran actors make their first appearances in an Anderson movie here. Josh Brolin is fine as Doc's nemesis, a profoundly corrupt lone wolf cop known widely, even semi-affectionately, as Bigfoot; we learn as much about Bigfoot over the course of the movie as we do about Doc, and their final scene together discovers an oblique but well-earned tenderness between them. (Reese Witherspoon's seemingly-square deputy D.A. reveals similar depth in a scene on a couch with Doc that's nearly as moving.) Talents as disparate as Maya Rudolph, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, Michael K. Williams, and Eric Roberts all make up a cast of agents, hangers-on, and grotesques that Welles would have admired. None of them coast on their familiar schitcks, and nearly all of them are as effective as Phoenix. A well-selected set of period tunes follows Doc through the story, and give way to Jonny Greenwood's brooding, suspenseful score (his finest yet) as events spiral out of Doc's control. As per noir tradition, the whole thing is held together by voice-over narration, but here it's from the peripheral character Sortil├Ęge, winningly played (and warmly delivered) by alt-folk singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom.

And I can’t be the only one in the audience who felt the movie’s very timely affinity with the protests throughout the Bay Area, as rife with cops cheerfully involved in their own conspiracies. (The man captured in this picture is an undercover CHP officer working to undermine the Berkeley protests from within; discovered by the protesters, he pulled a gun on them, and the Reuters photographer who captured him.) Between this and the stories leaked in the CIA torture report (including horrific tales of prisoners anally fed hummus and raisins) the world seems to be merging with Pynchon's. The great revelation might turn out to be that Pynchon was a realist all along. And yet Doc and the other characters in Inherent Vice struggle to attain some kind of grace, even in the face of what seems inevitable. Even without the movie's real world resonance these struggles are involving, bracing. Even if it's just as momentary, may we all find the grace that Doc and company do. Right on.

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