At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Inherent Vice “2014”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Period Neo-Noir Crime/Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Jordan Christian Hearn, Hong Chau, Jeannie Berlin, Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michelle Sinclair, Martin Short, Sasha Pieterse, Martin Donovan, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Yvette Yates, Andrew Simpson, Jefferson Mays, Keith Jardine, Peter McRobbie, Sam Jaeger, Timothy Simons, Samantha Lemole, Madison Leisle, Matt Doyle, Liam van Joosten/ Runtime: 148 minutes

I think it can be safely said that Paul Thomas (or P.T. as he is known by his fans and the film going community) Anderson at this point in time is easily one of America’s finest living arthouse film helmers and, following such masterpieces as 1998’s Boogie Nights and 2007’s There Will Be Blood to name but a couple, I honestly feel he could do whatever the heck he wants and I would still be intrigued enough to watch it. A philosophy that proved to be a bit problematic in the case of his 2014’s dopey film noir Inherent Vice since even though this film is delightfully odd, very well cast, and downright entertaining for the most part, you still might find yourself wondering just why in the world no one at Warner Brothers didn’t delicately come in and make restrain Anderson just a little bit. Yet even though Inherent Vice is very much the dictionary definition of divisive the cast is great, the helmsmanship is solid, and the narrative is wonderfully puzzling thus making a film that is still more or less P.T. Anderson at his finest.

The plot is as follows: Inherent Vice takes us all the way back to the long gone year of 1970 in the locale of Gordita Beach in California. A year that with a whole host of things including a small little act of combat known as Vietnam, started to see the good vibes of the previous decade sour to say nothing of signaling the beginning of a significantly more mistrustful as well as stricter era. It is in this time and place that we are introduced to our “hero” of this unusual saga in the form of one Larry “Doc” Sportello. Sportello, we soon learn, is a scruffy, long-haired private eye of some skill and talent albeit one whose head is up in the clouds due to seemingly always being under the influence of certain substances. When our narrative proper gets underway, we see that Doc is visited by an old fling by the name of Shasta who needs his help. Shasta, we learn along with Doc, has been for the past year or so been seeing a wealthy real estate developer. However things have gone south since the developer’s wife and her boyfriend have a scheme in place to get the developer scuttled off to the funny farm in order to make off with all his money. Of course Shasta would like the aid of our scruffy hippie detective to try and find him before this becomes a reality. It also should come as no surprise that Doc, due in large part to still being a bit low-key bitter to Shasta up and leaving him, knows taking this assignment might not be the best policy, but he’s going to do it because he’s a good detective….and because he might still have a thing for Shasta. Of course, I would be lying if I said that this was the entirety of the story. Not by a long shot. I say that because it isn’t long before Doc stumbles onto a labyrinthesque plot involving a missing and presumed dead saxophone player that also moonlights as a snitch for several different organizations, a fling of his at the District Attorney’s office, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood named Glen Charlock, a slightly unscrupulous lawyer whose specialty is maritime law, a coked out of his gourd dentist, a friendly nemesis in the form of a dogged and determined police lieutenant (and part time actor) by the name of “Bigfoot” Bjornsen who seemingly takes an equal amount of delight in chocolate bananas and making our hero’s life a living nightmare, and a mysterious yet seemingly sinister organization known only as The Golden Fang to name but a few of the galaxy of like-minded, unscrupulous, or both types of people our hero will encounter. Thus can our hero pull his brain out of his 420-influenced smog, solve the case, and maybe just maybe get the girl of his dreams back? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader….

Now right off the bat I think I need to make this absolutely clear: please I beg and implore you not to begin to try and figure out just where in the world the narrative path in this slice of cinema might be going. That’s because if I’m being absolutely honest with you the path this narrative is headed is not really the point of this slice of cinema. Indeed not only does this slice of cinema’s narrative consist of, for all intents and purposes, a collection of red herrings as well as double and even triple crosses, but also let’s be honest: according to the logic this film works with resolutions are the kind of things squares go for. Thus the joy to be found in this slice of cinema is in the journey it takes you on. A journey that is quite often darkly comedic in the best ways possible as it takes you by the hand and guides you through a noiresque realm where cops also act in TV and film, different racial radical groups can actually find common ground when locked up together in prison, and apparently 4 people riding in a car together qualifies you for both the Patrick Price on your insurance as well as being labeled a cult. Indeed I think Owen Wilson, of all people, says it best whilst sitting beside Joaquin under a Tiffany lamp as a collection of nude party goers mix and mingle behind them when he says “I don’t belong here”. A feeling that best be applied to the movie goers as well. At the same time though, who really does belong in the world of this film? Yet, for all their differences that they have, the collection of characters at the heart of this slice of cinema do have one thing in common with each other. That being that in their own individual ways they are all adrift in this big old world and will continue to stay adrift until something in this world comes along to give them a purpose to attach themselves to. Thus since this slice of cinema is practically the cinematic representation of the time honored concept that is organized chaos is it possible to make sense of any of it at all? Well by jove dear reader I do honestly believe that it is possible….to an extent. I say that because if a slice of cinema P.T. also helmed known as The Master was one that focused on the hunt for meaning in a more successful America of the 50s then this film, it could be argued, could be viewed as a spiritual successor to that film for how this one manages to illustrate for us the very real possibility that quite a few of those dreams and desires might have wound up broken and a bit bitter and cynical at the end of the 60s in beach-side Southern California. No that might not help this film make 100% complete sense, but in all fairness it’s better than nothing. Suffice it to say then that iconic film helmer Anderson is having an absolute blast with this slice of cinema’s all over the place narrative to the point that his film is very much the cinematic equivalent of a delightfully scatterbrained painting done by someone in the vein of Picasso and the cast of characters all splattered and flung to the far reaches of the cinematic canvas and yet, rather than just being mere caricatures or archetypes, every single one of them are masterfully drawn and fleshed out by the hand of a true artist and connected by their involvement with one of the most delightfully odd yet also fairly human and surprisingly relatable main characters in a P.T. Anderson slice of cinema to date.

It is with that in mind that, in terms of cast, this slice of cinema is blessed with a truly incredible cast. This starts with iconic lead actor Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s main character Doc Sportello. Indeed this film is one that thrives and operates on Phoenix’s gift for bringing the world of the film to life in a way that doesn’t make everything within it either an archetype or stereotype we may have seen before. Thankfully Phoenix shows why he is one of the more reliable albeit underrated actors of his generation by bringing Doc Sportello straight from the page and gives us a character who may appear clueless, and often more than just appears, but whose level of devotion to trying to do good for people and just accepting people for who they are is downright admirable….even if it means he gets his butt handed him a time or two. We also see that this slice of cinema is able to gift us a truly terrific turn from Katherine Waterston as the temptress-esque Shasta whose presence, despite 30-40 minutes of screen time, is felt through the whole movie even when she’s not on screen. Now in terms of the support cast, we see that the collection of actors here all manage to do also wonderful work though this is far from surprising given this IS a P.T. Anderson film. This starts with Josh Brolin who does wonderful work as Sportello’s law enforcement frenemy of sorts Lt. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen and the chemistry he shares with Phoenix in their moments together is something truly special to behold, Benicio Del Toro who does typically great work in a small yet pivotal role as Doc’s lawyer who specializes in maritime law of all things and who is as far removed from Del Toro’s OTHER famous attorney role in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as he could hope to get, Reese Witherspoon who brings a touch of class in her role of Sportello’s girl at the DA’s office Penny, Owen Wilson who is top-notch in his role of Coy Harlingen, and a whole host of other terrific talent including Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, Martin Donovan, and a wonderful albeit tragically limited extended cameo-style role from Martin Short who I was just glad to see in a live action movie again among others.

All in all I’m not gonna lie to you dear reader: the slice of cinema that is Inherent Vice may be one that really rags at you, the viewer with a low-key albeit lackluster apathy, but it also still might just be P.T. Anderson’s least approachable slice of cinema so far and he not only is aware of it, but he truly takes great delight in it. Indeed this is one twisted, drug-fueled, kinda sorta film noir is one film that both doesn’t ask you the viewer for anything whilst also requesting everything from you with the exception perhaps of your complete and undivided attention. Indeed it rants, raves, sits back for a smoke, contemplates, and then just sits back lazily not really wanting to do much of anything. On top of that, it also doesn’t seem to mind if you get lost as it takes off running only to then come back and tell you a joke or something of that variety and then bolts forward with a drunken and quite irritating/riveting tempo. Indeed the cases and cast of characters start to become indiscernible from one another, motivations begins to cross paths, and it is not that uncommon to see triple crosses take place. Indeed this is one slice of cinema that I can promise you will need to see more than once so you are able to figure out just what the heck happens in this film. I mean if you are the kind of person who thought some of Anderson’s other films were divisive then I promise you: you haven’t seen anything quite like this. I mean I know P.T. Anderson has always made movies for a specific audience, but this is one film that should still prove to be quite divisive. For those of you who are able to take it all in and appreciate it however, there is wonderful helmsmanship, terrific work from the various departments in making us feel like we are back in the era of the film, and a wonderful cast to help both guide and deceive us along the way. Thus I enjoyed Inherent Vice, but don’t be surprised if you are among those who walk away completely and utterly baffled as to how I am able to in the first place. On a scale of 1-5 I give Inherent Vice “2014” a solid 3.5 out of 5.