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I’m afraid that when it comes to me, myself and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, the honeymoon may, at last and alack, be over.
I mean, this was no one night stand.
When I first met Anderson, he took me with his Hard Eight. And we then spent many Boogie Nights together. I did think that with Magnolia we didn’t quite come together as we once did. Still, though it may not have totally worked, it was far, far…far more stimulating than many films that did. And with Punch Drunk Love he just, well, punched, drunked and loved me.
I was delirious.
But time marches on and, like so many relationships, people change, circumstances change, conflicts emerge until the relationship starts hitting some rough shoals.
Yes, I’m afraid to say it, but Anderson and I are having problems. We’re simply not communicating as well as we once did and the once pungent feelings of early love I once had are no longer there.
The dawn sun has at last come up and real life is now rearing its ugly head and the morning after has become a walk of shame, as they say.
Now, when these sorts of things happen, well, it’s important to realize that it isn’t necessarily any one person’s fault. And I’m more than fully ready to admit that it’s not him, it’s me.
But still, whosever fault it is, it still is.
At least there are no children so there won’t be any custody battles.
I even remember the exact moment the fissures started appearing. It was in the second half of There Will Be Blood when Daniel Plainview’s “brother” shows up and I was no longer able to understand the story or what Anderson was trying to do (and it didn’t help that it had a performance by Paul Dano that was not remotely convincing).
Then there was The Master, which many people loved. Me, I thought it had a great performance by Joaquin Phoenix, but was a story about two men who were fascinated by each other and I had absolutely no idea why. Again, the movie made no sense to me.
And now we have Inherent Vice, a neo noir set in the 1970’s adapted by Anderson from a book by Thomas Pynchon.
Inherent Vice is like The Big Lebowski, but without any of the tension, and like The Big Sleep, but with a plot that is far, far, far less understandable.
Yes, Inherent Vice is one long shaggy dog story with a punchline I didn’t remotely get. I couldn’t even follow the various strands of the joke.
It starts out well enough. It begins with hippy, pothead private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello being visited by an ex-girlfriend he still loves, but who is now the mistress to a wealthy real estate developer.
She believes that the developer’s wife and lover are going to make him disappear by checking him into a mental hospital, or maybe even kill him, and she wants Sportello to figure out what’s going on, for, like, old time’s sake, you know?
Now, that’s a pretty classic, or should I say groovy (it is the ‘70’s, after all), way to start a neo-noir, with an old flame emerging from the ocean fog and asking a favor that you, in the audience, knows is only going to lead to something bad happening because, well, that’s what happens when old flames show up from the past in neo-noirs, or pre-noirs or even noir noirs.
And Sportello does investigate. But it’s at this point where the story starts going wrong for me.
He first goes to the area the developer is, well, planning to develop, and finds a whore house (a pretty funny scene actually) where he is knocked out. When he wakes up, he finds himself surrounded by the police next to the body of a Nazi-biker he is now accused of murdering.
No, you’re right. We’re still fine here.
But almost immediately after this, he’s released from incarceration, all charges dropped, no longer accused of any crime. So there’s no longer any tension here. I mean, since he’s no longer a suspect, he has no real reason to investigate the murder or find the real killer. There’s nothing at stake for him.
And all the tension gets released at the same moment Sportello does.
And then his ex- disappears. And he investigates. Sort of. I mean, yeah, he does, but he does it in such a lackadaisical manner that there’s absolutely no forward momentum to the plot. The story just sort of moseys along as if it was smoking as much reefer as Sportello.
I mean, there’s so much weed being toked you’re in danger in the audience of getting a contact high. Be sure and bring your own munchies.
But the whole thing just mind trips to a halt.
Plus the plot is impossible to follow at this point. And it never comes together in an understandable way. I mean, yeah, The Big Sleep is impossible to summarize once you’ve seen the movie, but at least it made perfect sense as you were watching it.
How you react to Inherent Vice, then, will probably depend on how you feel about the various and very loosely connected series of vignettes that make up the film. If you “get it”, get what Anderson is trying to do, you’ll probably have a blast. For example, Sportello has his office in a doctor’s office for some reason. If you think that’s funny or enticingly quirky, you’ll love the movie; if you don’t, then I suspect you won’t.
For me, the whole rigamarole was extremely hit and miss. There were some very funny lines here and there. No matter how nearly rocked to somnambulation I often was, I found myself guffawing in spite of myself at unexpected moments.
At other times, the movie felt like one big in-joke, but an in-joke from an earlier generation. There’s a running gag about calling people like Sportello dirty hippies, as if that phrase alone would elicit laughs. But calling hippies dirty and making other similar jokes about them is just so…so…so…well, it’s just so 1970’s, and the wit never really rises to the level of All in the Family (I mean, if you want dirty hippy jokes, I think you can’t do better than Norman Lear and Archie Bunker).
And outside of Cartman on Southpark, does anyone really know or care what hippies are?
The best performances are given in two minor roles: Maya Rudolph, as Sportello’s kind of secretary (she’s the desk nurse at the doctors’ office), brings a full personality to what is a character that is basically devoid of personality (and she has a funny interchange about Sportello’s love life); and Martin Short, as a drug addicted dentist who likes young women, is so surprisingly hysterical, I’d love to say he’s worth the price of admission alone, but he’s not, so I won’t.
Most of the other actors feel wasted or underused, like Benecio Del Toro, Owen Wilson and Rese Witherspoon.
Most of the female characters are indistinguishable (I don’t know if that was purposeful or not) and the only nudity, full frontal no less, is solely distaffian. And one of them delivers a running voice over, but I had no idea what she was talking about half the time.
Joaquin Phoenix mumbles his way through his role as Sportello, complete with an appropriately shaggy head of hair. He’s dull, but I’m not sure that’s his fault. I’m not convinced he has a character to play.
Josh Brolin attacks the role of the butch haircutted police officer “Bigfoot” with a lot of intensity. But like much of the movie, his character doesn’t make much sense. There is something interesting about the love/hate relationship he has with Sportello, but the most intriguing aspect of his character is his constantly eating phallically shaped ice cream.
Though what’s intriguing about it is not why he is doing it, but why Anderson is having him do it (or if it’s in the book, why Pynchon has him do it).
(And speaking of penii, Peter McRobbie’s Adrian Prussia, Bigfoot’s nemesis, is first seen polishing his bat. And I’m talking literally, though I think that Anderson might have also been speaking metaphorically, but what the metaphor meant was as unclear to me as the chocolate banana ice cream sticks Bigfoot sucked on).
Some surprising people also show up here and there. Eric Roberts plays the real estate developer; Jack Kelly, of Maverick and Forbidden Planet, plays a blacklisted actor; and Jeannie Berlin (Elaine May’s daughter) is Aunt Reet. Most of them have something to do with the plot. I’m not sure what, but I’m sure it was something.
Inherent Vice is kind of fun to look at, with a flat, 1970’s approach to cinematography that was popular back then. It also has such oddities as a cone shaped building that looks like an upside down tornado or a hat worn by Divo, and a middle class family who calmly picks up bundles of heroine.
But when all is said and done, though I know we’re going through a rough patch, I still have hopes that Anderson and I will reconcile at some point in the near future. I certainly admire the way he refuses, along with such filmmakers as Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman, to go the way of Hollywood and seems determined to make his own movies his own way, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
But I’m afraid that with Inherent Vice, a trial separation may be on the horizon.