Paul Thomas Anderson is like a god to me. I know I’m not at the only one to feel that way. Anderson is to us what I imagine Scorsese was to cinephiles of the 70s and 80s. He’s one of the greats, plain and simple. One of my favourite things about being born in the 90s is getting to grow up and watch a career like Anderson’s unfold one film at a time. For me his movies are like tattoos. I remember where I was the first time I saw them, the person I was and how they made me feel. I carry his filmography around with me every day, up there in my imagination and I often find myself thinking of moments in his films, performances and details when I least expect it. When I’m asked what I love about movies, one of the first names that pops into my head is Paul Thomas Anderson. Richard Linklater made a movie about childhood by documenting one child’s life over twelve years. Maybe one day someone will make a film about being a cinephile and set each chapter in the year of a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie. That would make sense to me. So anyway, where are we? Inherent Vice. Right. Movie number seven. Lets go.
When I first saw The Master I called it a film made of liquids. It has an aimlessness to it that is intoxicating and dream-like. Looking into The Master is like looking into the ocean itself, it swirls and crashes inward, rarely stopping to make a serious point or dig for a conclusion. It was a surprising film from Anderson, much more subdued and forcefully vague than his previous work. Unbeknownst to us, it also signaled a stylistic rebirth for the Boogie Nights director. Gone are the riffs on Altman, Scorsese and Kubrick – here is Anderson painting with his own brush. Now if The Master was a film of liquids then Inherent Vice is undoubtedly a movie of smoke. A movie of clouds – big, green and hazy.
To echo the thoughts of many: watching Inherent Vice is a lot like being stoned. I’ve seen people claiming the film would be better experienced under the influence but I doubt it. It’s so dense with detail and it’s pleasures are so dependent on subtlety that it would probably a serious fucking bore if you were anything but alert. The film’s great success is conveying a fogginess, it lowers you into a daze even while you’re completely sober. For the majority of Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix – as Doc Sportello – wanders around bemused and curious, his eyebrows constantly uneven. He’s a character who arrives into a scene too late and has to play catch up. That’s how we, the audience, experience Inherent Vice. It’s plot, while not exactly incoherent, is delightfully unruly but as Anderson has emphasised in countless interviews, the plot is secondary to the sensation of having fun while being confused. Sit back and just go with it.
Where Inherent Vice really comes alive is in it’s details. Details of the period, the performances, the music, props, costumes and the background are infinitely awarding. It’s the little things that really sing. There’s a moment when Doc writes a message onto his zig-zag paper before smoking it in the hope that it will send good luck to a loved one that made me laugh out loud. As did the close-ups of the nonsensical clues in his notebook. Josh Brolin’s obsession with frozen bananas never ceases to be amusing and the barrage of wigs and outlandish costumes is never-ending. It’s a film full to the brim of sight gags and left field staging. If Anderson wants two girls to start making out and perform oral sex on one another mid-scene so be it! It all adds to overall sense of circus and absurdity. It’s Anderson at his most freewheelin’ and the most 70s. He might not be flat-out copying Altman and Robert Downey Sr. anymore but he’s certainly channeling their spirit. Much of this can no doubt be attributed to Thomas Pynchon. I’m not familiar with Pynchon’s work but through Anderson’s interpretation I get sense of him. Yet this doesn’t feel like a filmmaker trying to imitate another artist. The two voices blur together to the point where, as a Pynchon novice, I can’t tell where Anderson starts and Pynchon ends. It seems like the perfect marriage of author and filmmaker and Pynchon’s oddball tendencies seem to have loosened Anderson’s.
There’s so many genres at work here – it’s a sex comedy, a private eye movie, a psychedelic odyssey and a slapstick noir all at the same time yet the way it’s presented is so wonderfully unexpected. We all assumed Anderson would blow the dust off his Boogie Nights gloves and deliver something energetic and riotous but he opts instead for the long takes and patience of The Master. It feels right. The approach lets us live in the scenes and take in the textures. Much of the dialogue is mumbled and quiet yet the emphasis on body language between the actors says everything we need to know. It’s colourful yet dirty. Shot on glorious celluloid, this is easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen recently and one that avoids drawing attention to itself visually. Many of the film’s most striking compositions fly by without a second of false modesty. The famed “last supper” image everyone latched onto in the trailers for instance, comes and goes in the blink of an eye. I like that about the film. Anderson isn’t interested in showing off any more. He’s more obsessed with creating a whole and coming at scenes from a new direction. We spend so much time in this movie looking at the back’s of characters heads or just watching them exist in a space and it’s fucking great. He’s a filmmaker so besotted with the performances of his actors that he’ll often do nothing but let them breathe and develop in real time. One stand out scene, which goes from conversation to sex-scene over 6 minutes is particularly memorable.
It’s clear now more than ever that There Will Be Blood was the end of phase one in Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. His two movies since then, The Master and now Inherent Vice lack the immediate, obvious pleasures of his first five and are much stranger when first encountered. I felt the same way at the end of Inherent Viceas I did when I first watched The Master – somewhat vacant and frustratingly untouched yet still under a spell. However, within ten minutes of leaving the cinema I found myself recalling moments – acting details or throwaway gags – that had immediately stayed with me. With Inherent Vice I thought about it’s sound, the way Vitamin C by Can kicks in on the title and carries on as Phoenix aimlessly wanders down the street and the way Neil Young seems to haunt the movie’s sun kissed beaches like a shaggy angel. I thought of Joanna Newsom’s soothing narration and the colourful ensemble of strange characters brought to life by the sprawling cast. Many of the actors only appear for one scene yet they all leave a mark. The brilliance of Anderson’s recent work is more submerged but it makes repeat viewings increasingly rewarding. I purposefully put off writing this review until I had seen the film again. It’s a movie that demands at least one revisit. You need to live with it for a while before you form an opinion. The characters call you back and even now I’m itching to visit them a third time.
Inherent Vice is a zany movie but an oddly mediative and touching one. Anderson has always been a romantic at heart and the final moments of Inherent Vice bring to mind the closing images of both Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. He may have grown into a more restrained and mature filmmaker, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s heart is as big as ever. This is a loving film, both to a time long gone and to a time that may have never really existed in the first place. Is Thomas Pynchon’s version of 1970 an accurate document or a hazy mirage? Who knows. But Anderson’s adaptation is a satisfying triumph of “feel, don’t think” filmmaking. It is funny, alive and confusing but totally immersive. It is a great movie.
This review was originally written on January 15th, 2015.