Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Reece Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone and Joanna Newson
Running Time: 148 minutes
Release Date: January 30th
Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon kind of make the perfect partners for collaboration. One is an author who makes difficult sprawling novels, the author a director who makes difficult sprawling movies. That Inherent Vice, a pot-infused gumshoe detective story set during Nixon’s term and the Manson trial, was the choice is probably the greatest surprise considering its moderate straightforwardness by Pynchon’s standards. But hey, even Anderson will readily admit he’s not read Gravity’s Rainbow. (Really, who has?) It’s the ideal union though, the weight of The Master and There Will Be Blood would make you forgot just how funny Anderson can be, like with Boogie Nights, and Vice‘s meandering narrative, breezy California setting and ridiculous characters let’s him return to his most fun and playful.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private investigator working out of a dentist’s office, receives a visit from his old-lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks him to help her new boyfriend, a wealthy land developer, from being institutionalised by his wife and her lover. Doc clearly still pines for Shasta and agrees, setting him on a journey that gets him involved with white supremacists, the Feds, a disappeared saxophone player and agent provocateur, dopers and a shit-kicking, Fred Flintstone haired Detective named Bigfoot. And then there’s the small matter of the Golden Fang; which might be a drug smuggling gang, a boat that got lost in Bermuda Triangle or a consortium of dental surgeons. Who knows, man.
The first thing that strikes is how within five minutes, how real the world feels. Regular Robert Elswit’s cinematography is washed out, looking like the print was left to soak in the salt water surf and covered in flecks of sand. The costumes, like Doc’s polo neck/jean jacket combo, are spot on. Johnny Greenwood’s paranoia tinged score is excellent but experiencing PTA digging in the record crates is the true hit — the rattling snare of Can’s Vitamin C as the camera prowls through Gordita Beach and the movie’s neon titles appear is to cinema goers what good dope is to Doc.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master was framed by his hunched over stance, and if anything, he’s even more physically committed here. He shows a strong touch for Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker style slapstick, bounding, figuratively and literally, through scenes. His tendency to mumble plays perfectly with Doc’s confused and hazy demeanour. It’s essentially a one man show with other characters swooshing past his orbit. Best of all is Josh Brolin as hippy-hating Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. He’s terrifically confrontational, whether it’s trying to get a confession or ordering pancakes, his only moments of calm coming from his bizarre obsession with frozen bananas. Elsewhere, Jena Malone blossoms too as a dope-lactating mother with fresh gnashers, Benecio Del Toro’s naval lawyer gets the best lines and Martin Short’s deranged dentist threatens to just about run away with the whole movie.
Doc is an unreliable guide through the changing Los Angeles landscape, drifting bemused on a cloud of smoke, meeting one fantastically named piece of the puzzle at a time — and what monikers, like Puck Beaverton, Sauncho Smilax or Petunia Leeway. Trying to keep up with plot can be a chore and maybe isn’t the point. It’ll surely frustrate some, but best just to let its feverish reality wash straight over you.