Friday, January 16, 2015

Inherent Vice: A Unique, Often Brilliant, End of 60s Epic ****

We now have the definitive "end of 60s" epic. While The Big Lebowski will never lose it's cult status as an ode to slackerdom, I'll suggest Inherent Vice offers something more. Based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice takes us back to Los Angeles in 1970.  With Nixon in the White House and the nation in paranoid shock after Manson family atrocities in California and the Kent St. killings in Ohio, Inherent Vice pinpoints a turning point in the culture.  Beneath the often hilarious slapstick humor, few modern actors do a pratfall better than Joaquin Phoenix, there's also a subtle melancholy in every scene.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, a private eye who enjoys getting high and clashing with the LA PD. The film begins with Doc alone at his apartment watching TV. His old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) shows up, and like Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, leads Doc on a journey into, to quote Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, "the savage heart of the American dream."  Throughout the film, Doc uncovers conspiracies encased within conspiracies, basically you're old fashioned shaggy dog story.

Noteworthy performances abound.  Katherine Waterson brings mystery and allure as Shasta.  Josh Brolin plays a psychotic, but comical police detective.  Martin Short takes a wild turn as a Dr. Feelgood dentist. Owen Wilson adds humanity as a paranoid Jazz musician.  Those are just a few examples. The entire cast did a fantastic job with Pynchon's unique dialogue. 

Anderson's direction feels more restrained and less stylized than his previous films.  At 148 minutes, Inherent Vice moves along at a leisurely pace.  While each scene is connected to the grand narrative of the story, each one also works as a vignette, like songs on your favorite rock album. The narrative flow reminded me of great John Huston films like The Asphalt Jungle and The Misfits.  I'd even compare the pacing to Tarantino's Jackie Brown. As a film noir, or so called "slacker noir", Inherent Vice draws upon everything from Detour to The Long Goodbye.

Film allusions aside, Inherent Vice exists in a unique cinematic universe of its own.  A sense of time and place comes across in every shot.  For example, the imagery amusingly reinforces the tension between the "straight world" and the counterculture. Doc understands the world makes no sense, or at least the version of the world the establishment wants to uphold.  

As the "Big Lebowski" declared, "the bums lost!"  Thus the vibe of Inherent Vice.  Many writers have written eloquent reflections on the end of the 60s, my favorite being Pete Hamill's liner notes to Blood on the Tracks.  Inherent Vice achieves such a tone.

I'll need to view Inherent Vice a few more times and I'm sure with each one my appreciation will grow.  While the plot's complicated and confusing at times, it's not incoherent. A dull moment never occurs.  We now have a great triple feature on the legacy of the 60s: Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice.


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