Since he burst on to the scene with 1997’s ”Boogie Nights” (no, it wasn’t his first film, but it was the one that put him on the map), Paul Thomas Anderson quickly rose to the hallowed ranks alongside names like Fincher, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Nolan and Wilder.
Such distinctive talent gives the impression his films all have a similar style – particularly because he the habit many great directors have of using the same faces time and time again.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Every film has been completely different in everything from length to genre, from the short romantic comedy of ”Punch Drunk Love” and the epic ramblings of ”Magnolia” to the stark, performance-driven period pieces of ”Let There Be Blood” and ”The Master”.
So even though your first thought after watching Inherent Vice is ‘well, we’ve never seen anything like that from Paul Thomas Anderson before’, you quickly realise he’s just doing what he’s always done – experimenting with structure, aesthetic and tone all over again.
The element that makes you think it’s something completely new and different is that it’s the closest thing to outright comedy we’ve seen from Anderson. The scene in the trailer of hero Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) suddenly screaming in horror at a polaroid photo is almost slapstick, and it’s not the only scene of burst-out-loud laughter in the film.
But the stronger hallmark of Inherent Vice is that on a first viewing, the plot and characters seem like the worst kind of muddled mess, and it’s the aspect of the film that will put a lot of audiences off. It’s way too complicated to connect the dots as you’re watching, and no matter how good the visuals or how arresting the image (and Anderson’s a master at both), an incoherent story is often too much of a noose around the neck of a movie.
But like all Anderson’s work, the deeper you dig – maybe just by simply watching it more than once – the more you’ll be rewarded. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s book of the same name, everything does tie together and the characters and central conspiracy do make sense – even though you’ll have to wait for the DVD and be ready with a whiteboard to completely disentangle it.
Some theories online have already postulated that the red herring-laden plot is just one more MacGuffin Anderson wields to characterise the era. Private eye Doc is high on weed most of the time (as are most of the denizens on the tail end of the free-love era) so he’s got no hope of holding all the strands of the case he’s currently facing.
His girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) has left him, seemingly for a rich and corrupt land developer Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The evidence seems to say Wolfmann’s wife and her lover are conspiring to put the real estate magnate away to get their hands on his fortune, but that doesn’t cover the half of it.
There’s also Doc’s LAPD informant, the straight laced ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who you’re never sure is an idiot or a genius, a good guy or a villain. There’s a drug-addled dentist (Martin Short) who belongs to a business association that might be a front for a fearsome Asian drug gang, a saxophone player (Owen Wilson) locked in a rehab centre who just wants to get back to his wife and child, and what feels like a dozen other characters on the periphery, all tied up together in the same mess.
It’s Chinatown seen through the lens of the Age of Aquarian era, with so many identifiable LA moods and movements referenced they’re as hard to keep up with as the unfolding story.
Phoenix is effortlessly effective as the foil in the middle of it. His terminally mellow, clueless hippie Doc is the polar opposite of both the tightly wound ball of anger and violence he portrayed as Freddie Quell in The Master and the shy, nervy Theodore from Her.
It’ll take more patience and investment than many are prepared to give, but even though you can’t quite tell on a first viewing (and you might even get bored), Anderson’s high quality work is buried deep, but it’s there.
DVD : The rather disappointing extras package consists mainly of promo shorts.