A haze of smoke uncoils and dances in the air, slinking out from of the mouth of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), part-time private investigator and, ostensibly, full-time pothead. So light and loony this character (and film) is, Inherent Vice almost comes as a surprise to those following the career of Paul Thomas Anderson, whose last few films have fit, for the most part, comfortably within a mode of seriousness. Vice, while hard to describe as frivolous, is not as married to that tone, instead taking on something goofier, funnier, and consistent with Anderson’s work; something enjoyably off-kilter.
One man smokes. His ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) returns. She tells him of a scheme her lover’s wife’s lover is drawing up. A man disappears, but is resurrected. There’s a corrupt cop, a drug enterprise run by dentists, an Asian masseuse, and other disparate plot details. This is Inherent Vice.
Though based on iconic author Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film feels absolutely at home playing the neo-noir game. Never feeling the need to subvert the tropes or clichés of noir, it buys into them wholeheartedly, particularly with its narrative threads. If the above plot synopsis doesn’t make sense, rest assured that it isn’t supposed to. Borrowing from previous noir masterworks like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, the mystery doesn’t matter; the mystery never matters. It’s about how the plot unfurls, keeping the audience on their toes and watching them as they edge closer to falling out of their chair out of anticipation and anxiety. Not unlike watching Philip Marlowe drive around Los Angeles in Altman’s own subversion of the genre, Anderson seems to take a great deal of pleasure driving around and surveying the numerous faces and people of the film, caring less about the trajectory of the plot in logical terms and more so in ‘emotional’ ones.
A notable fan of Robert Altman’s work, Paul Thomas Anderson eventually departed from paying homage to that style of filmmaking, where both directors gave a panoramic view of a particular landscape, with its people, places, and things. It’s absent from Anderson’s work from Punch-Drunk Love onwards, but he returns to that method for Inherent Vice. Yet, the impression he gives is that he’s a bit rusty on why it worked so well both for Altman as well as himself in his earlier work. Yes, we get to see a plethora of characters, all, as fate would have it, connected in one way or another, yet the illustrations we get of them feel scant. It isn’t that some of their appearances are short, it’s that they are too often devoid of any singular or distinctive quality. Even in the quickest, shortest moments with a passing character in Magnolia, Gosford Park, M*A*S*H, and The Long Goodbye, we only need to see a hint of an idiosyncrasy and we get the character in full there. Maybe it’s asking a lot of Anderson, but, aside from Sportello, the characters feel a little unfinished; to be clear, though, his ensemble cast is superb.
However, there are remnants of Anderson’s more rigid self, with indulgences in long takes in conversations, a dour (yes, dour) Jonny Greenwood score, and this new, ‘flat’ way of filming, incorporating something he used for The Master. If nothing else, Anderson immerses you in the time period and in the head of Sportello, and lets the cynical flame lick at the film’s perforations.
There is, though, a continually fun push and pull regarding the genre it plays around with. Film noir often focuses itself with a male protagonist, somehow lost, lonely, and cynical, needing a reorienting in life to some degree, and this is generally told from a first person perspective from that male character. But the biggest thing that Anderson changed from the book was placing Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) as primary narrator of the film. (The book is told in third person omniscient.) Paul Thomas Anderson’s preoccupation with masculinity is juxtaposed against Sortilège’s observations, comments, and even suggestions. The narrator and the protagonist have a relationship in the film (not necessarily a romantic one), so there are instances where it is as if Sortilège is speaking directly to/about Sportello. Newsom is nicely cast in a film that knows how to utilize her mellifluous voice. That fun little dalliance on noir is nice, and yet there’s an element to Inherent Vice which is unfulfilling.
There’s nothing particularly new about what Vice does, even if it does it exceptionally well. Anderson’s mashup of Looney Tunes-esque slapstick goofiness and noir’s existential and narrative tensions are absolutely a joy to watch, but it doesn’t feel as if Anderson ever bothers to push hard on that or subvert conventions. He experiments with the aesthetic to some degree, using marijuana smoke in some silhouette shots, one of the most amusing delights of the film. Those juxtapositions in tone are nice, to be sure, but seemingly little else. It’s not a bad thing, by any means, watching PTA do his own stoner Hawksian noir, but nor is it particularly thrilling as a result.
And of Phoenix’s performance, there is nothing but praise to be heaped onto it. The curl of his lip, the sneer, the stoner confusion, the earnestness, and weird innocence; Phoenix handles such a number of elements to his character with aplomb. Too easy is the comparison between him and The Dude of The Big Lebowski, but there’s an isolated quality to Sportello which feels more palpable and arguably more interesting. The cadence to his dialogue is more amusing and light-hearted, another gambol Anderson makes with noir.
It doesn’t leave one as buzzed or intoxicated as The Master, but it’s hilarious and fun enough to have you leave on a high. Though it’s essentially PTA doing The Big Sleep, breathing in those swirling ribbons of smoke will be quite a nice vice in itself.