The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>Inherent Vice</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Inherent Vice

Adaptation of the cult Thomas Pynchon novel.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Hong Chau, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short

Prior to his reinvention as a mature, classical filmmaker with 2007's There Will be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson was the bete noire of this reviewer. After a promising but flawed debut in Hard Eight, Anderson made three of the most self indulgent movies to come out of the American mainstream in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, a trilogy that ridiculously saw him labelled the spiritual heir to Robert Altman. I had as much as written off Anderson, and as an Altman fanatic, the comparison stuck in my craw. Then came TWBB. This couldn't be the same director I had grown to despise like few others; Anderson had matured into a confident mature filmmaker, trading his obsession with 70s cinema in to make a movie that had more in common with Ford, Huston and Brooks than Altman, Scorsese and Downey Snr. And it wasn't a one-off; his followup The Master continued in similar fashion.
Had you warned me in 2005 that one of my most anticipated films of 2015 would be an Anderson joint, I'd have reacted the same way Phoenix's Doc Sportello does when shown a particularly disturbing photograph here - in an over the top manner! But thanks to his previous two works, I was sure a third gem would wipe away the horrors of PTA's early films. Sadly, Inherent Vice is a big comedown, the cold turkey after the party of The Master. It's not a return to the self-indulgence of Anderson's late '90s, early '00s period. Far from it. This is Anderson's least self-indulgent work, an all too reverent adaptation of the 2009 novel from cult author Thomas Pynchon.
Sportello is a mutton chopped private eye singeing his fingers at the roach end of the flower power era. He's woken from stoned slumber on an amber hued California evening by ex-girlfriend Shasta (a revelatory Waterston), who we learn is the love of his life through several Fandango style hazy flashbacks. Shasta believes her current beau, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, sadly given precious little screen time to work his notorious method magic), is being targeted by his malicious ex-wife. Sportello accepts the case and thus begins a standard private eye plot, with a few points liberally borrowed from Altman's The Long Goodbye.
Several of Inherent Vice's images have stuck in my head - a wasted and paranoid Sportello staring entranced as Josh Brolin's civil rights violating cop sucks on a frosted banana, a rack of ties patterned after various members of the female cast, a last supper tableau with giant pizzas that Adam Richman would struggle with - but I can't recall a word of dialogue (save for some distracting movie references; everything from classic cinematographers to '80s slashers), and there's a lot more of the latter than the former. Private eye movies are never about plot (a prize for anyone who can explain the plot of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep without resorting to wikipedia); they're simply a device to have the central protagonist encounter a variety of oddball characters, usually men who want him dead and women who want him in their beds. These movies live or die on the strength of their characters, and it's a genre that's given us some of cinema's most memorable dialogue. The characters Sportello encounters here certainly look interesting, thanks to costumes that are more Head than Edith Head (Martin Short's Henry Gibson get up is a standout), but they don't say or do anything remotely engaging. Sportello meets a lot of people in the course of his investigation, and Anderson is so enamoured with Pynchon's dialogue that many of the resulting conversations (which are roundly crying out for a Leigh Brackett polish) take place with the participants seated at formica tables, framed against white walls so the visuals don't distract us from the words. It's a waste of one of the most visually interesting filmmakers American cinema is currently fortunate to have.
It's clear how much Anderson wanted to bring Pynchon's novel to the screen, but perhaps he should follow Altman's lead and adopt a Robert Benton / Alan Rudolph type protege that he could have farmed this out to while working on something more befitting his talents. Inherent Vice is more Late Show than Long Goodbye.