Immediately after my initial encounter with Inherent Vice, the seventh film by widely celebrated auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, the very first sentence I typed for this article was:
Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a bad movie.
However, something compelled me to watch it for a second time. Whether this decision to see it again was swayed by the film itself or by mere good will and patience toward Paul Thomas Anderson, who consistently challenges film and draws out that common feeling of “not being on its wavelength” upon their first viewings, I’m not exactly sure where I fall; probably somewhere in the middle. Regardless, after the second viewing I came home and revised my first sentence:
Paul Thomas Anderson has yet to make a bad movie.
I realize, of course, that this is subjective. Whether one likes a movie or not goes further beyond the quality of it, if it was good, I’m convinced that elements like our childhood environment, experiences, and circumstances will shape the way we think on deep “subconscious” levels. Often times these experiences or circumstances are completely out of our control and have been placed in motion with the unforgiving waves of time, long, long before us. So when watching a movie, we are essentially throwing our entire conscious and subconscious life onto the film; our critical opinion of it is merely a reaction of the context we grew up or currently live with.
Do I sound existential much? Did I just aimlessly direct the paragraph in a rambling manner?
For those that have smoked marijuana, I think there is a common, similar experience that most of us have shared, and that is the paranoid and perceptive feeling of being “plugged in” to something very real and very dark, yet at the same time, there is hyper-awareness of personal thought processes, even if a bit nonsensical, silly or wandering. The stoner is always still convinced that they’re picking up something on an intuitive level that is probably there. Or maybe it’s just not.
But that feeling very well encapsulates the overall experience that is the drug-fuelled, sun-drenched, colorful and vibrant world of Inherent Vice.
The film is centered around a consistently dazed and hazed, pothead Private Investigator named Doc Sportello, who lives in Southern California at the tail end of the 1960’s, and at the beginning of the film (in traditional Noir fashion) is surprised by a visit from his beautiful and mysterious ex, a woman named Shasta Fey Hepworth. It is clear that between them exists some complicated, romantic emotions, but the meeting here is not affectionate. Instead, she lays Doc with a heavy story involving a millionaire land developer Mickey Wolfmann (who Shasta is currently involved with) and a plot supposedly hatched by Mickey’s wife and her boyfriend, to kidnap the man and throw him into a looney bin. Soon after Doc Sportello accepts to help her, both Mickey Wolfmann and Shasta disappear, thrusting him into an underworld LA where the promises of the 60’s are slipping by, and the strange and seedy characters in this time and place are all looking for something to escape to.
But this movie is so, so, so much more than what a plot synopsis can explain.
First of all, within the context of Noir films, Inherent Vice takes the expectations and boundaries of the genre to such extremes, that the result is both hilarious and awe-inspiring. The movie has a seemingly endless amount of characters, locations, and revelations throughout that Doc floats through in a permanent blur of Zombie Tequila’s and marijuana joints, and it’s never fully clear what exactly the whimsical, burnt-out PI is retaining as he travels through a colossally complex labyrinth where any concrete truths (both abstract and physical) are in a constant state of flux. This is an element of all Noir’s, but Paul Thomas Anderson cinematically makes it feel absolutely massive and in consequence, some will find this movie to be nothing but incomprehensible homework given by a teacher who quietly smirks to themselves about being smarter than their pupils.
Which is a shame, because upon a second viewing, I was delighted to find that this movie’s seemingly incomprehensible plot, is actually ENTIRELY comprehensible. There IS a clear path through this maze. The dots DO connect. Well most of them do, anyways. The details of WHY Doc wanders from characters and places in the order in which he does makes absolute, coherent sense. But the ultimate, final truths of certain, mysterious entities within the movie end on a sometimes elusive note. But the great thing about it is, by the time the audience realizes that they may never know what the Golden Fang is, a puzzling entity that haunts Doc as he suspects that it’s everything from a heroin-smuggling boat, an enterprise that uses dentistry as a means of emotional control over drug addicts, or an LAPD front that is somehow in cahoots with an Aryan brotherhood, or all of them all at once, the movie is already concerning itself with themes and ideas much larger than a traditional, mystery question of “whodunnit?”.
Because, ultimately, this film is NOT its’ plot. As expansive as the plot may feel, it’s just one of the many tools Paul Thomas Anderson uses to tell this strange and offbeat story and if one has trained themselves to recognize and understand HOW a filmmaker tells their stories, I don’t know how this movie can’t at the very minimum gather immense respect for its execution.
Paul Thomas Anderson has made a film of contradictions. The plot is intensely meticulous yet breathlessly sprawling. The characters are deranged and silly yet profoundly sorrowful. It is often surreal yet completely grounded in a genuine history of a very specific time and place for America. It is a large ensemble cast with some big names (Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Maya Rudolph, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon), yet the majority of these actors are only in this movie for a maximum of 6 minutes.
On all levels of film-making, there’s simply too much to talk about, and I’m sure much more to discover. I believe because of this the film will age very well. We’re going to need some time to fully process the scope of what Paul Thomas Anderson has done here.
Inherent Vice is an intricately woven, colorful and cinematic kaleidoscope of mystery, romance, absurdity, philosophy, low-brow humor, and high-brow artistry that lyrically communicates at a whirlwind pace; a 1960’s, Southern Californian tale about some of human nature’s most immortal and puzzling realities; the bittersweet and unforgiving nature that is paranoia, regret, and time.
Paul Thomas Anderson has yet to make a bad movie.