The very best movies of this recent past year concerned themselves with depicting life in the present; living in the here and now, whenever that “here and now” was. From the 60’s Poland to the 2000’s Austin, Texas. Enter auteur Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who throughout his eclectic career always puts his audiences in the fleeting moments of the here and now. Asking us to empathize with characters living in the stagnant haze as they transition to another time and era in their lives. Expectations, attitudes and culture can all change on a whim, if you’re not careful you’re find that time has passed you by with little chance of catching up.
“While trying to fall asleep, in she walks, back into my life after all this time. Looking even better than I had remembered and dreamed. Dressed simply but with a distinct purpose of making my imagination run wild…” It’s the typical kind of first lines that would populate noir narratives like the one in Anderson’s latest trippy, hilarious and absurdly complicated work Inherent Vice. The difference here being this is anything but a typical detective-story; with shady land development deals, the most innocent looking Femme Fatales ever, Buddhist cults, Chinese crime syndicates run by Caucasians and hippie-hating emasculated cops. Everything and the kitchen sink is thrown on-screen at the audience in adapting the reclusive and esoteric author Thomas Pynchon work of the same name.
Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Private Eye living in the fictional Gordita Beach, California circa 1970 with a rather ‘Unique’ style of investigation, shall we say, in getting as high as possible to sort through the clues he gathers during an investigation. A child of 60’s through and through – the devil-may-care attitude, hair and the aforementioned liberal substance abuse – but just like that he finds himself right in the 70’s. For himself, and some of the people closest to him, this a paradigm shift to the unknowable and is ridiculously and comically unprepared to cope with. To go into more detail with the ‘plot’ is rather pointless and is not what this is really all about, because it is obvious after around 20 mins into this that Anderson’s aim is not for you to follow every step and pick up on all the characters, motivations and clues along the way. It’s not just an object that is the Macguffin the whole ‘plot’ is the Macguffin in this case. The filmmaker’s true M.O here is to actually give the experience of being overwhelmed and confused by the merry-go-round that is the progression of time we all fall through constantly. This being a film for mass consumption, that can be a problem. As audiences by and large don’t want feel confused or lost with their entertainment, they have their own lives outside of the theater for that. We want confident, resourceful, and prepared protagonists showing us the way through the story. However, that is not the way reality always works for us and this is what film does best: conveying an experience to make us better understand our place in the world.
Comparisons to Dazed and Confused, The Big Lebowski and even Airplane! are all apt and reasonable. As all those other films find a way to make us laugh at absurdity of our lives and asks audiences to shrug it all off and just go with the flow. That is perhaps the best way to enjoy something like Inherent Vice, letting the movie play on, despite the moments that make you raise your eyebrows. And there are lots of those to be found here, have no doubt. The other thing these films have in common is that they are great “hang-out” movies to put on with a group of friends and just revel in the madness on-screen. Getting some buddies together, sharing a few laughs and enjoying your time spent together; are there greater joys that a movie can bestow on someone?
Of course, in order to pull this off the characters and performances have to mesh together enough to move the film along at some kind of a pace. Luckily, with an ensemble cast this strong with Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and Reese Witherspoon, they are all up to the task. The standout, however; is one of the lesser recognizable names in the call sheet in Katherine Waterson, daughter of Sam Waterson, playing the quasi-femme fatale character that jump starts everything in the ‘plot’. We see her as Doc sees her, as that girl who got away, she is the lynchpin to the whole affair. The scenes that Waterson and Phoenix have together on-screen crackle with natural chemistry and help to convey that despite his era coming to the end and the world transitioning into something completely alien Doc still has something constant in his life. Or does he?
Anderson is one of the very best filmmakers actively working today, partnered with his longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit the two make the Southern California 70’s scene look equal parts inviting and foreign. The bright overexposed sunlight daylight scenes, densely smoke-filled rooms, harsh red lights of police car warning lights and the cool blue moonlighted night scenes all combine to give a distinct atmosphere of the bygone era. With the characters all running around the frame trying to find their place in the sun, before it’s too late. It is seemingly built into us from birth that we eventually become obsolete, out-of-touch and synch with our ever-changing world. One could say that is our most maddening ‘inherent vice’; when the here and now stops being seamless and becomes a struggle. Anderson is merely trying to state that in this crisis, you sometimes just have to meet it with a shrug and laughter. In the end, the point between being relevant and obsolete is measured only by the people you share the experience with.