The curious problem with Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Inherent Vice,” an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel that premiered at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, is that it spotlights lots of external vices (drug use, sexual excess, romantic obsession) but few that could be called inherent. It’s a lengthy burlesque on paranoia, on conspiracies both real and imagined, so dazed in its color schemes that Anderson clearly wants you to get stoned watching it. But the sense of being blissfully out-of-it, which can have its pleasures, soon drifts into another aspect of drug use: detachment.
And that detachment cuts off any emotional or intellectual investment we might have in Pynchon’s material, which is doled out to us in chewy bites of narration by Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), a flower child who tells us the tale of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the lost and longed for ex-girlfriend of private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix).
In the first hour of this twisty neo-noir patterned on “The Big Sleep” but also Robert Altman’s pot-infused 1973 “The Long Goodbye,” Anderson seems to have gotten his juice back, showing off the abandoned filmmaking that marked his first successes with “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Those films were visibly influenced by Altman and Martin Scorsese, before Anderson moved toward what looked like the uneasy mixed influence of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick in subsequent, more stately films like “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.”
The great strength of Anderson’s earlier movies was in their ensemble energy. His films gave the feeling that everyone was feeding off everyone else and working toward making a kind of seething mosaic on the rise and fall of a group – of mostly losers, some more colorful than others. “Inherent Vice” offers Anderson the opportunity to work again with a large ensemble, but the results wind up being drastically, even disastrously, different.
The most distressing thing that has gone wrong is his treatment of and use of women.
Even if it’s been a while since you’ve seen them, you probably still remember the three-dimensional fierceness and vulnerability of Julianne Moore and Heather Graham in “Boogie Nights,” or the fragility of Melora Walters in “Magnolia.” Women were barely seen at all in “There Will Be Blood,” and were limited to Amy Adams’s opaque wife in “The Master.” In this movie, which is true to its noir atmosphere, women are just sexual creatures, either comic or creepy.
This extends most disturbingly to Waterston’s Shasta. In an extended scene where she comes naked to Phoenix’s Doc and lays herself on his lap to be spanked for her transgressions, it is unclear just whose reality we are watching, and why. In a novel, you can control the tone of an ugly male fantasy like this, making it as real or unreal as you want. But when you have an actual naked actress in a long take, you can’t really control the reality of what viewers are seeing and hearing, and there seems to be little point to the scene except as something you write (or film) and then throw away before you embarrass yourself.
“Inherent Vice,” like many of the major movies coming out this fall, runs for two and a half hours. Phoenix is in practically every scene, shuffling and mumbling and listening, or trying to listen, to whomever might be able to tell him what happened to Shasta, who has gone missing. There are lots of Pynchon-style red herrings: white supremacist groups, cops who are only out to protect each other, druggies and seekers and one triumphant society lady who tells Doc that the flattering lighting in her house was done by “Jimmy Wong Howe… years ago.”
That’s a cute cinephile reference to a famous cinematographer for those who get it, as is the paperwork that lists a guy’s address as “Gummo Marx Way.” There are probably all kinds of other little Easter-egg references like that strewn about this movie, along with some good visual ideas. There’s one particularly beautiful sequence where we see Doc and Shasta in a flashback running out to get drugs in the rain; then Anderson cuts to Doc walking past the same locale, where a large ugly building stands in the place where there used to be a picturesque vacant lot. This puts across a sense of loss far better than any of the dialogue we hear on that subject.
But films are more than their references and visual coups. They are also, generally, about people and times and places, and there are no believable people or characters in this movie. They’re just cartoons — half-baked, not-particularly-funny cartoons, alas.
It has long been said that this is the limitation of Pynchon’s novels, and so Anderson comes by this limitation naturally. But it is especially distressing because he used to be so good at catching the idiosyncrasies of different people colliding with each other in his movies. Remember Henry Gibson’s gay guy of a certain age at the end of the bar in “Magnolia”? I still do, but I would be hard-pressed to remember anyone in “Inherent Vice” just an hour or two after seeing it.
Of all the actors, Martin Short and Eric Roberts stand out. Both of them seem dying to give great big fat juicy performances, but they’re shot down in mid-flight by the exigencies of the intricately-plotted project at hand. All of the actors struggle to make their gnarly, florid, highfalutin’ dialogue sound natural, some more successfully than others, but the ultimate druggy and self-indulgent futility of this project defeats their best efforts.
Phoenix is supposed to be a pothead’s pothead (in one amusing moment, he flourishes a joint like he’s Leonard Bernstein about to start conducting some Mahler), but he doesn’t make any connection with others, even briefly. That’s fatal to a film of this length, where practically every scene is one where he’s meeting someone new.
In Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” the private eye played by Elliott Gould is also detached in his druggy way from the people around him, but he keeps up a running commentary with himself that reveals a hip, attractive, wounded sensibility that is far more sophisticated and enveloping and enticing than anything in “Inherent Vice.”
Anderson seems to have lost all real pleasure in filmmaking; he seems to feel it’s a kind of duty now, the weight of his various influences weighing him down and crushing the bright, grasping, sensitive artist who made “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Instead of following his instincts, he is over-thinking and pre-supposing too many things about what he’s shooting, not letting enough air and life into it, making stiff films that play like momentous build-ups to nothing, or nothing much.
“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far,” says one of the red-herring girls to Doc. I wish someone would tell Anderson to get off his highway of influence, and back into the quieter blocks and side streets of his own particular and original way of looking at life and people.