Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When the fog finally lift(ed)

Let's just start with the title of this fantastic P.T. Anderson take on Thomas Pynchon's novel: Inherent Vice. It is not at all a spoiler to say that "Inherent Vice" is a term of art in Marine Insurance that means the natural tendency of items being shipped to, let's say, self-destruct: chocolate melts, glass breaks, etc. If you know Pynchon, this is almost a philosophical outlook -- an ontology. Or not...

There is a range of qualities that make this film just...well...wonderful. It would take more than the space in this Blog post, and more than the average reader has the stamina to read to cover them all. So let's take a selection: the source material, the adaptation and the filmmaker. Oh, and some other stuff, like Joaquin Phoenix's note-perfect rendering of Pynchon's not-perfect stoner P.I., Doc Sportello.

Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Pynchon fan, and have been ever since I read V in college. I mean, just saying that is kind of cliche, but I haven't "grown out" of him. Hardly. I loved Vineland, and really, really loved Inherent Vice. So, when I found out one of my favorite film-makers was going where no filmmaker had gone before, and was ADAPTING a Thomas Pynchon novel, I was intrigued.

The novel Inherent Vice is a fascinating pastiche of loony-but-likeable characters (which reminds one of V), fast-rapping pop culture references and a plot that is so intricate Charles Dickens might be rolling in his grave. Pynchon has honed his craft over the years, taken the relatively compact story telling of V, the epic qualities of Gravity's Rainbow and now fashioned something that is part Elmore Leonard, part Charles Bukowski, with smatterings of William Burroughs. But all Pynchon. One particularly remarkable prose passage (from a scene not included in the film) describes the interior of a decrepit casino in Las Vegas - like a one-take scene in a...well, in a P.T. Anderson film. I'm thinking the roller disco opening in Boogie Nights, here.

Then there is the Adaptation. It is hard to say that with a straight face in this post-modern, Spike Jonez meets Nicholas Cage world, but it still matters who takes a work of real weight like this and tries to bring it to screen. Even a relatively straightforward Pynchon novel like Inherent Vice is a challenge, since his prose is so dense with pop-culture allusion. Here, Anderson is the screenwriter and director, and the material could not have been a better fit: Anderson seems to think somewhat like Pynchon does; and, the purported LA resident Pynchon is an eloquent chronicler of the region's vices and virtues.

And then there is Mister Anderson. All I can say about him is, well, you had me at Boogie Nights. Literally. Go back a few years and remember the year Boogie Nights came out. That same year we had David O Russell's stunning Three Kings, and David Fincher's equally stunning Fight Club. I shared an opinion with a number of "real" critics that that year was a watermark in American Cinema. None of these directors has let us down, and Anderson has really all along been my favorite. Perhaps in part because I spent most of my life in LA, and Anderson has chosen to make LA. itself the topic of all of his films: not just set his films in L.A. or use L.A. to represent other locations, but make films ABOUT Los Angeles. Or, about life, philosophy, culture, etc. viewed through the lens of L.A.

Inherent Vice concerns one Larry "Doc" Sportello, a pot-smoking private detective who seems not to have gotten the memo that the 60s died, and what was left was the 70s. To summarize the plot would really be futile, and really miss the point. For Pynchon (and to some extent Anderson), the narrative through-line of the story is incidental to the story-telling itself. In short, Doc is visited by an ex-girlfriend for whom he still pines, learns of the disappearance of a scum-bag L.A. real estate mogul, and, well, the rest is Pynchon. Evil corporate plots involving shadowy government agencies (with glancing references to Richard Nixon), coke-sniffing dentists, confusingly-named sanatoria, macho L.A. cops and robot-like FBI agents. You get the idea.

As mentioned, Joaquin Phoenix quite literally steals the show in Inherent Vice, with just the right amount of stoner disregard to avoid getting killed and to succeed solving the mystery. If you can say the "mystery" is ever really solved. Joining him on this jaunt is a great set of A listers: the nearly always great Josh Brolin as LAPD detective 'Bigfoot' Bjornson, Phoenix's Walk the Line co-star Reese Witherspoon as Doc's Assistant D.A./squeeze, Martin Short as the aforementioned drug-addled DDS, Benicio Del Toro in a marvelous turn as Doc's vaguely Latin attorney. The list could go on.

Joining these better-known actors is a brace of lesser-knowns and unknowns, and this is part of what gives the film its undeniable charm. Joanna Newsome plays the mysterious Sortilege, who also does the added voice-over narration. Two actors I had never heard of play the anonymous FBI agents, and perhaps that is the point. An actor we don't see a lot, Eric Roberts plays Mickey Wolfman, the a-hole about whom all the fuss is being made in the first place, and the lovely Jena Malone is Surf Sax player Coy Harlingen's abandoned wife.

As always with Anderson, the technical and other aspects of the film-making are near-perfect. As has been pointed out by critics, his warm, highly saturated lighting, combined with relatively straightforward shots and camera angles is distinctively Anderson, and suits the material well. And the material, here is not just the tapestry of characters but L.A. itself. Not the gorgeously-shot L.A. of Chinatown but the hyper-realistic L.A. of P.T. Anderson, which shows everything: the good, the bad and the ugly.

As is typical with Anderson, the music is exceptional. In fact, so good that it actually becomes part of the fabric of the film, the way Wes Anderson's intricate production design does. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood did the main score, and sprinklings of period music, including well-placed Neil Young snippets really help complete what is an extraordinary finished product.

Inherent Vice, ironically doesn't appear to have any of its own...vice that is. The title seems to refer to the sort of entropy that seems to enthrall Pynchon -- whom many consider to have been the first true "post-modern" novelist in English -- as a way of understanding the world; the center cannot hold, but let's enjoy watching it fall apart, in a very human way.