The year is 1970, the setting is LA, and Doc Sportello has just gotten exactly the kind of high he wants when he gets a visit from an old flame. She’s a long, lean slip of a girl called Shasta Fay Hepworth. Moving in and out of the shadows of his pad, she weaves him a tale of his new beau, a possible kidnapping, malversations of all sorts, several suspects and some other things and then leaves. Next thing we and Doc knows he is not just searching for her beau, but also for her, and a few other shady characters in between and the swirl of psychedelia that Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie is begins to unfold, and once it does, there’s no stopping it.
And, oh man, what a delicious swirl it is. Confusing, too, in all the best ways, and across your sensory planes. So much so that trying to write about it brings to mind that “talking about love is like dancing about architecture” saying, you just need to experience it. But, you know, we can try:
Lets start with the eyes: to say that Inherent Vice is beautiful feels lazy, even though it is. In fact, it is WILDLY beautiful (and sometimes wildly ugly) to looks at. The colors come together and apart in ways that feel so of the moment for the moment they are supposed to be in, perfectly defined and fuzzy at the same time, a crystal clear haze that makes you feel you ARE experiencing everything through Doc’s bleary eyes. Everyone involved looks great AND real too: Joaquin Phoenix and his muttonchops were born to play Doc, the coolest disaster of a private eye since Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter!) as Shasta is a sinewy revelation, and the characters they are surrounded with (cops, robbers, private eyes, DAs, corrupt dentists, recovering addicts, sexual massage parlor owners, saxophone players, real estate moguls, to name a few) are all exactly as they need to be: fabulously memorable within seconds of laying your eyes on them, and easily forgettable once they stop being useful to us, and the movie. Just like real life.
Then, there’s your ears: to say that Inherent Vice sounds beautiful feels lazy, event though it is the truth. It is WILDLY beautiful (and sometimes wildly disturbing) to listen to. Johnny Greenwood did the score and Can and Minnie Ripperton make song appearances and man, it is a groovy, dark classic. But lets look beyond that: in a stroke of unparalleled filmmaking tool genius, Anderson casts Joanna Newsom (AND, more importantly, Joanna Newsom’s voice) as Sortilege, the film’s narrator. She purrs her way through a messy narrative in a way that both neutralizes the male chauvinism movies like this often spiral into and gives it credibility. I mean, come on, if you were to catch yourself in a psychedelic noir, is there a better voice than this to lead you through it?
Then, there’s your nose: Sure, you can’t smell a film, but you kind of CAN smell Inherent Vice. The rank, sweet smell of weed that is everywhere, the earthy, pungent essential oils on the girls, the Old Spice aftershave Josh Brolin’s character inevitably wears, the sweaty pockets inside people’s knee folds, the tanning lotions on the rich old ladies and the Aquanet on Reese Witherspoon’s professional updo. You can.
And then, of course, there is the fact that EVERYONE is clearly having the time of their lives here. Inherent Vice is up there in terms of the funniest movies you’ll see this year. The leads are strong and almost preternaturally natural in their comedic timing, yes, but the bit parts are almost more fun. The cast list runs the gamut: Maya Rudolph to Martin Short, Benicio Del Toro to Owen Wilson, Jena Malone to Eric Roberts, all of whom take what little scenery they’re given and chew the living, breathing hell out of it, leaving it all out there on the floor.
Which comes in handy because the movie, while it has as a clear narrative as one could hope from ANYTHING based on a Thomas Pynchon novel, is long. LONG. Which it needs to be for it to work, and Anderson’s script doesn’t really skip a beat, but is still a little bit of a challenge for the average moviegoer. A rambling 148 minute long mystery, it is both hilarious and suspenseful and somehow not a comedy nor a thriller, either. In fact, trying to define it seems like one of those losing battles where one inevitably does something lazy and compares it to some other movie (Big Lebowski? the early Altmans? A hippie Chinatown?) when in fact, it is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen (this year? ever?) and you’re either going to love it for it or hate it for it, but no matter what you have to see it.
And please, please (PLEASE) do yourself a favor and see it in a movie theatre, in complete dark, with a big screen washing over you. Don’t fight the wild that is coming at you from every angle. Just give into it.
I leave you with this song from the movie, in lieu of a traditional trailer we have at the end of reviews, it works better. Hey you: