“Is that a swastika on that man’s face?” asks “Doc” Sportello. Dr. Threeply responds, “No, it isn’t. That’s an ancient Hindu symbol meaning ‘all is well.’ It brings good fortune, luck, and well-being.”
Paul Thomas Anderson has emerged over the last two decades as one of the best American filmmakers working today. Long gaps (such as three to five years) between his directorial efforts have become common. He was one of those directors whose work I’d admired but never actually got a chance to see any of his films on the big screen until I saw 2007’s There Will Be Blood (which was amazing) and 2012’s The Master (which was quite the emotional journey). It came as a complete surprise to me when I found out that his next film would come out in late 2014, only two years after The Master. I was unfamiliar with the novel that it was based on, but given Anderson’s track record and the cast assembled, I figured that there would be a good chance that I’d like the film. I finally had a chance to see Inherent Vice recently on the big screen, and it turned out as I had expected (translation: I enjoyed it very much, no matter how weird or trippy it became).
2014’s Inherent Vice follows a hippie/private investigator named Larry “Doc” Sportello in 1970 Los Angeles as he is asked by a former girlfriend to investigate the disappearance of her new lover. His investigation becomes a launch point into other investigations and goings on in town that he becomes involved with (some unwittingly). Anderson assembled an incredible cast for this film: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Martin Donovan, Eric Roberts, and Serena Scott Thomas. Phoenix is terrific as the hippie P.I. who’s much more astute than he appears and hilarious without forcing the humor. Brolin fits the part of a tough cop well, but he also derives a lot of humor from what his character does without any of it feeling forced (my favorite scene of his is when he breaks down Doc’s door, grabs a tray full of pot, and then proceeds to eat it all while Doc looks on in sadness over the loss of so much pot). Watching them together was fascinating; we get two complex characters who clearly disdain one other and yet there seems to be some admiration lurking underneath the disdain. The rest of the cast is just as good (especially the revelatory Waterston), but Phoenix and Brolin’s interactions are one of the biggest highlights of the film.
Anderson, who adapted the novel by Thomas Pynchon, filled his Oscar-nominated screenplay with a lot of humor that (as previously mentioned) flows naturally and never feels forced. The narrative becomes complex, weird, and trippy, but is nevertheless compelling and, perhaps, is meant to reflect the state of mind of protagonist “Doc” Sportello. Robert Elswit’s cinematography gives the film a ’70s neo-noir look, while David Crank’s production design successfully recreates 1970 Los Angeles. Mark Bridges’ Oscar-nominated costumes designs reflect the clothing of the late ’60s/early ’70s, and Leslie Jones’s editing keeps the film moving at a good pace. I must, of course, mention Johnny Greenwood’s terrific score. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may not be a film for everyone, but for those who decide to go along for the ride, it is certainly worth it (I’m already dying to see it again).