And, the trade reviews. Very mixed -- sounds worth seeing, but not remotely Oscar fare.
Chief Film Critic
The good-vibing ’60s are slip-sliding away in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” and along with them a certain idea of pre-Vietnam, pre-Manson California life — of boho beach towns and uncommodified counterculture soon to be washed away by a tsunami of gentrification, social conservatism and Reaganomics. Freely but faithfully adapted by Anderson from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 detective novel — the first of the legendary author’s works to reach the screen — Anderson’s seventh feature film is a groovy, richly funny stoner romp that has less in common with “The Big Lebowski” than with the strain of fatalistic, ’70s-era California noirs (“Chinatown,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Night Moves”) in which the question of “whodunit?” inevitably leads to an existential vanishing point. Not for all tastes (including the Academy’s), this unapologetically weird, discursive and totally delightful whatsit will repel staid multiplex-goers faster than a beaded, barefoot hippie in a Beverly Hills boutique. But a devoted cult awaits the Warner Bros. release, which opens wide Jan. 9 following a Dec. 12 limited bow.
If “Inherent Vice” couldn’t, on its surface, seem to have less in common with Anderson’s previous pic, the fictionalized Scientology origins story “The Master,” it is, just beneath, another sympathetic portrait of wayward souls clambering for solid ground in war-torn America (albeit with the relative optimism of the ’40s replaced by a blanket of Nixonian paranoia). The year is 1970 and the place Gordita Beach, a fragile ecosystem of surfers, psychics and sandal-clad shamuses in danger of disappearing from the map. (Pynchon modeled the fictional South Bay town on Manhattan Beach, where he lived in the late ’60s during the writing of “Gravity’s Rainbow”).
Among the locals is Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, sporting Groucho Marx eyebrows and Elvis sideburns), who runs his private-eye business out of a medical office and seems to spend considerably more time scoring grass than solving cases. But then, as Pynchon writes, American life is “something to be escaped from” — a line Anderson repeats verbatim in the film — which means good business for PIs and drug dealers alike. Indeed, in “Inherent Vice,” everyone is hiding out from something.
That includes Shasta Ray Hepworth (leggy, lissome newcomer Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam), an ex of Doc’s for whom the flame still burns. She’s the obligatory woman in trouble who sets “Vice’s” psychedelic Raymond Chandler plot in motion, showing up unannounced on Doc’s doorstep spouting claims of a conspiratorial plot involving her current lover, a deep-pocketed real-estate magnate named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose wife may be angling to commit him to a loony bin. And before Doc can so much as follow a lead, Mickey — and Shasta — promptly vanish into the ether. It’s the start of a pretzel-shaped trail that snakes across the Southland from the rolling surf to the concrete “flatlands” east of the 405, and from low-rent petty criminals to the corridors of government power (i.e., bigger criminals), and where nothing is as it first — or even secondarily — appears.
Pynchon and Anderson’s world is a fluid, shape-shifting one in which every conversation is an exercise in doublespeak and people change identities as frequently as they change their clothes. A nefarious entity calling itself the Golden Fang may be a blacklisted movie star’s personal sailing vessel, an Indo-Chinese drug cartel, or a syndicate of tax-dodging dentists fronted by a coke-snorting Dr. Feelgood (a delirious Martin Short), while the presumed-dead “surf sax” musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) may actually be an alive-and-well student agitator named Rick or a police informant known as Chucky — or, quite possibly, all and none of these things at once. Elsewhere, there are more distressed damsels and femme fatales than you can shake a joint at, including Doc’s on-again, off-again assistant D.A. girlfriend, Penny (Reese Witherspoon); Coy’s reformed-addict “widow,” Hope (Jena Malone); and the unstable rich girl Japonica (Sasha Pieterse), whom Doc recovered in a long-ago teen runaway case.
The more Doc digs (while appearing throughout in his own succession of disguises and alter egos), the more the plot doesn’t so much thicken as spread out, like the city itself, stretching infinitely toward the smoggy horizon. When a bump on the noggin results in Doc waking up next to a corpse and surrounded by cops, he even becomes a suspect in his very own case, though it’s pretty clear that Doc’s primary police antagonist, the detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), has other designs on him. A hulking Swede who moonlights as a TV actor and celebrity pitch man (yet more disguises), Bjornsen appears at first to be as square as his flat-top haircut, but is gradually revealed as a tortured soul with his own compelling melancholy, and Brolin plays every one of those crosscurrents and contradictions to wry comic perfection. He practically vibrates with the wiry energy of the landlocked establishment man who yearns to let his hair down, a Joe Friday primed to explode.
Arguably the greatest of the wave of postmodern, metafictional American writers that also produced William Gaddis and John Barth, Pynchon is a conspicuous cinephile whose novels run thick with movie references (both real and invented), but whose phantasmagoric, form-bending narratives have long seemed to resist cinematic translation (though the indie director Alex Ross Perry made a very admirable stab at channeling the spirit of “Gravity’s Rainbow” in his micro-budget 2009 “Impolex”). Clocking in at a mere 369 pages, making it Pynchon’s shortest novel since “The Crying of Lot 49” in 1966, the linear, dialogue-driven “Vice” seemed a more logical candidate, and one very much in sync with Anderson’s own yen for vast arrangements of characters who collide and ricochet in kaleidoscopic patterns.
Even then, Anderson has had to judiciously pare back the book’s dozens of speaking parts and near-endless digressions (including a long third-act detour to Las Vegas). But he’s done a supremely effective job of keeping Pynchon’s voice present in the film — literally — by turning the peripheral character of Doc’s ex-assistant, Sortilege (singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, in her bigscreen debut), into an onscreen narrator, who pops into and out of scenes like a manifestation of Doc’s subconscious, a surfer-girl Jiminy Cricket.
Moreover, Anderson has superbly captured Pynchon’s laconic, gently surreal tone, which permeates the film as thoroughly as the hazy SoCal light of Robert Elswit’s gorgeous 35mm cinematography (with dirt, scratches and other film artifacts on full view rather than digitally erased). As befits Doc’s drug of choice, the style of the movie is mellow yet anxious, nearly all static master shots and slow, creeping zooms — closer in look and feel to “The Master” than to the speed-fueled, Scorsesean pirouettes of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” The punchlines to the innumerable jokes are casually tossed off, as dry as the Santa Ana winds. Anderson also avoids any stylized, drug-induced fantasy sequences, the point being that the world in broad daylight is the heaviest trip of all. And those aesthetic choices are echoed in Phoenix’s beautifully understated, lightly buzzed performance, as the actor furrows his brow and stares bewildered into the void, seeking an existential truth far more elusive than any phantom lady.
Pynchon and Anderson don’t peddle the myth here that the hippies had it all figured out, man, or that drugs are a conduit to a higher plane of being. By the end, just about everyone seems equally noble and absurd — the flower children and the captains of industry, the free spirits and the brass-tacks enforcers. The ground is shifting under them all, but whereas Anderson has often tilted toward the apocalyptic in his endings, in “Inherent Vice” the great, seismic cataclysm is nothing more (or less) than the passage of time and the closing of an era. It’s there that Anderson’s innate romanticism falls in step with Pynchon’s own grudging assertion that we are each other’s own best hope, and that sometimes the greatest disappearing act of all is to return home.
Working on a modest budget, production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges (both regular Anderson collaborators) evoke the period in all of its paisley, denim, earth-toned splendor without ever resorting to kitsch. Composer Jonny Greenwood provides Anderson with another typically polyphonic original score that ranges from a plaintive violin theme to atonal surf/acid rock twangs, nestled in among an equally eclectic playlist of pop, soul and experimental rock needle drops.
6:00 PM PDT 10/4/2014 by Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line
The first Thomas Pynchon novel to hit the big screen gets uneven handling by Paul Thomas Anderson.
What might have seemed poised as a primo 1970s counterculture companion piece to Boogie Nights emerges as something less than that in Inherent Vice. The first filmmaker okayed to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen, Paul Thomas Anderson has made a zig-zagging, effortfully comic mystery yarn that sends a weed-and-beach loving private dick on a dazed journey through the mash of corrupt cops, druggies, new age cultists, hookers, Nazi bikers, Black Power toughs, real estate tycoons, Nixonian politicos and free love chicks that was L.A. forty-four years ago. But only fitfully does the film manage the kind of lift-off as that achieved by Pynchon's often riotous 2009 novel and, most disappointingly, it offers a only a pale and narrow physical recreation of such a vibrant place and time.
While Vice contains more mainstream elements than Anderson's last film, The Master, this Warner Bros. release still faces long odds in making significant inroads with the general public.
Set in 1970, the year Anderson was born, Pynchon's book is a day-glo doper variation on Raymond Chandler, cut with James Ellroy and Robert Towne, about a stoned white knight who can navigate the city's power structure from top to bottom and deal with all the freaks because he's one of them. The themes of civic corruption and big-money influence and everyone having their price are unchanged since Philip Marlowe took them on several generations back, but providing this updated tale with its special pungency is the immediacy of lost innocence; what was beautiful and groovy and far out up to 1969 all went south in the wake of the Manson murders, on top of which you had Richard Nixon as Southern California's fresh gift to the nation.
Through the miasma of dope smoke and spiritual malaise shuffles Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who at his beachfront pad in Gordita Beach is surprised to behold Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a beautiful butterfly from his past who shows up to ask his professional help in tracking down her secret lover, big shot land developer Mickey Wolfmann, who's vanished. Where we might expect to hear voice-over narration from Doc himself to help clarify the action and vast cast of characters, instead there is rather baffling commentary from a secondary female character who imparts confidential information and insight; even by the end of the film, it's impossible to figure how she's privvy to it.
Wolfmann's disappearance is merely the trip-wire for all sorts of other, mostly disreputable characters to bisect Doc's orbit, not a few of them with some sort of connection to Wolfmann. When he heads out to Channel View Estates, Wolfmann's latest eye-sore housing development in the South Bay, and pops into a sex parlor there looking for one of the owner's bodyguards, an Aryan Brotherhood biker, Doc is knocked out, only to wake up next to the dead biker and be accused of murder by buzz-cut cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an old nemesis who walks and talks like he just stepped off the set of a lewd version of Dragnet (he actually does extra work on Adam-12).
Doc wriggles out of this absurdity, but becomes pressed by both Bigfoot and the FBI to help locate Wolfmann and counterculture figures he's suspected of knowing, among them Coy Harlington (Owen Wilson), a musician friend who is thought to have died but rematerializes in the weirdest places. Looming over everything is a mysterious schooner, the Golden Fang, the provenance and cargo of which is much speculated about.
Adapting a book for the second time in his career (after There Will Be Blood), Anderson has contrived to cook Pynchon's sprawling yarn down to its dramatic essence, even if some wonderful interludes, such as a side trip to Vegas, are sorely missed. Still, viewers coming to this material cold will find it pretty daunting to connect all the dots. This means that what really counts here, as in a head-scratching classic like The Big Sleep, is the sizzle of individual scenes, the atmosphere, the innuendo, the electricity between the characters and actors.
In this regard, Inherent Vice is intermittently successful but only up to a point. The Nabokovian names Pynchon bestowed upon many of his characters suggest the broadly comic context he created for them: Dr. Tubeside, Sauncho Smilax, Petunia Leeway, Puck Beaverton, Dr. Threeply and Adrian Prussia, just for starters. Brolin's hard-boiled and hardcore Bigfoot is perhaps the most prominent of these bizarre creations; intimidating one moment and provocatively sucking on a chocolate-covered banana the next, the man is clearly deranged, although not without great cunning. Far broader are Martin Short's Dr. Blatnoyd, a drug-happy horndog of the first order, and many of the guests who go to hide or dry out at a looney new age retreat. Most of the women serve to demonstrate that free spirits can easily become lost souls in this anything-goes world.
As the audience's would-be tour guide through this haphazardly mapped landscape, Doc Sportello is a something of a wayward knight, a clown prince, a solitary jouster for personal justice who, though he's often in a fog, somehow manages to see straight. What would have helped better establish and sustain the film's humorous sensibility is an actor with a comic side, a self-deprecating performer who can win over the audience both as an amusing straight-man (Doc is more often a reactor than a doer) and an endearing fool; a young Dustin Hoffman comes to mind as an ideal Doc.
Who else could have played the part today is unclear, but Phoenix, for all his skill playing more serious roles in the likes of Walk the Line, Her and The Master, doesn't possess this sort of levity or mutability of spirit. He's a strong enough performer to center the film and hold it together, but he lacks the elastic face (especially beneath his big mutton chops) and bemused eyes that might have made the character more accessible and amusing.
As Doc's unlikely part-time squeeze, a bee-hived deputy D.A., Phoenix's Walk the Line co-star Reese Witherspoon plays it primly and disapprovingly efficient until she lets her hair down and gets stoned one night at his place. Her slithery Shasta proves elusive through much of the story, but eventually Waterston assumes centerstage, in a compellingly strange way, in a long scene with Doc toward the end. Brolin and Wilson are both strong as very odd characters indeed, while Benicio Del Toro plays a relative straightman who provides Doc, and the audience, with needed information about the Gold Fang and other matters.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment about the film is the relative absence of Los Angeles as a major physical character. The film feels dominated by medium and tight close-ups. There are establishing shots of places like the housing development and police headquarters but, whether for budgetary or artistic reasons, the film makes no real attempt to do what the book did, which was to convey with acute sensitivity and insight the feel of different parts of the city—the beach community where Doc lives, the hippie magnet of the Sunset Strip, the musicians' lair of Topanga, the deteriorating downtown of officialdom, and other outlying areas. In his first few films, L.A. native Anderson made a point of evoking the city in knowing and specific ways, but here, with such a ripe opportunity to make a great L.A. movie, it's almost as if he's deliberately spurned the invitation.
Also gone is Doc's film buff side; the novel is full of references to old movies, specifically to films noir and anything with John Garfield, but this may have been too obvious a note to hit onscreen.
As always with Anderson, the soundtrack is of great interest, first of all for its relative lack predictable oldies-but-goodies from the period. The often intriguing and offbeat song interpolations gradually give way to increasing use of long stretches of original dramatic music by Anderson stalwart Jonny Greenwood, which proves quite effective toward the end.