“Wild movie,” New York Film Festival director Kent Jones told the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Brian Brooks back in August. “You know, it’s the first [Thomas] Pynchon film adaptation, and it really catches his tone. It really catches the antic nature of him…. I was born in 1960, but I certainly remember 1971 very well and I gotta say, from the minute the movie started to the minute it ended, I was back—way back… It’s an amazing piece of work, and at this point Joaquin Phoenix and Paul have something so rare between them as an actor and director, and Sam Waterston’s daughter, Katherine, is in it, and she’s riveting every minute she’s on screen. It’s quite a film.”
And for weeks thereafter, that was pretty much all we knew about Inherent Vice. Well, other than who was cast, a bit of what they had to say about the atmo on the set (“It was crazy, chaotic but really, really gratifying,” says Josh Brolin) and that Jonny Greenwood would be composing the music.
Until about a week ago, when Logan Hill profiled Paul Thomas Anderson for the New York Times. “A 180-degree turn from Mr. Anderson’s relentless oil odyssey There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice is his most comedic and anarchic film since Boogie Nights,” writes Hill. “It’s a stoner detective film so overstuffed with visual gags and gimmicks that the filmmaker said he was inspired by slapstick spoofs like Top Secret! and Airplane!” Oh, and: “The mystery of Mr. Pynchon’s cameo is trivial. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to pursue—and the same could be said of the mysteries in Inherent Vice, which exist more to propel Joaquin Phoenix into wild, gag-filled scenarios than to deliver whodunit satisfaction.”
Earlier, Hill had met with Katherine Waterston, who told him: “‘There’s a lot of uncertainty on every page of the novel. Is it all in her head? Or not? Is she as afraid as she needs to be? Or not?’ Figuring it out by doing all of her scenes with the mercurial Mr. Phoenix was more relief than challenge, she said. ‘Working with a scared actor is scarier than working with a brave one.'”
A few days after the PTA profile, the NYT delivered what amounts to the first published review. Stephen Holden does set the film up nicely:
Joaquin Phoenix portrays Doc Sportello, a lackadaisical private investigator combing the underbelly of Los Angeles and its environs for two missing persons, one of them his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Josh Brolin, in a cartoonish flattop haircut, portrays Bigfoot Bjornsen, a corrupt, bullying police officer with a hilarious oral fixation. And Martin Short has a small, juicy turn as a beady-eyed druggy dentist. Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson and Jena Malone also pop into view. Behind it all lurks the menace of a mysterious, perhaps imaginary crime cartel known as the Golden Fang.
The movie creates a surreal vision of a bygone Southern California dense with smog and reeking of marijuana, when every street seemed to have its own massage parlor. The atmosphere is so steeped in vintage psychedelia that it is impossible to distinguish reality from fantasy; it could all be a dream.
Variety‘s Scott Foundas: “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.”
“Inherent Vice is probably too dippy and straight up strange to be remembered as Anderson’s masterpiece, but—in its own laid back way—it might be the most undeniable display of his talent.” At Little White Lies, David Ehrlich adds that it “provides Anderson with a blissed out excuse to collapse the bitter enchantment of his last two films into a cast-of-thousands whirligig in the vein of his pre-millennial stuff. But viewers expecting the bloodshot cocaine head-rush of Boogie Nights will be disappointed to discover that—despite the ubiquitous drug use—this is a film that exists in a perpetual state of withdrawal. It’s almost impossible to follow and just as hard to kick.”
The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “Anderson’s seventh picture, a strung-out comic thriller, drowning in anxious laughs, pays homage to the classic Los Angeles private-eye yarns of the early Seventies: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, and most of all Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.” This is “a shaggy dog story so thick and matted, you hardly know what to believe from one scene to the next—although the entire film seems to exist in a glowing, heightened place, somewhere far out beyond belief. Anderson has ditched the brooding composure of There Will Be Blood and The Master for close-up camera angles and hot, grainy colors that breathe Doc’s befuddlement straight into your lungs and brain.”
For Time Out‘s Joshua Rothkopf, Inherent Vice is “astounding: literary, loose-limbed and simply impossible to make head or tales of, if you want a straightforward story. Relax a little…. Does it all add up? Anderson, like Pynchon, has never been forward with his politics, and, while there may be a death-of-the-counterculture thread to be teased out by nervous viewers, Inherent Vice is probably best left alone to do its thing.”
“Ask not where the film is leading; that’s hardly the point,” advises the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “The plot amounts to a set of red herrings and besides, solutions are for squares. Instead the thrill is in the trip, which is often uproariously funny, dragging us through a shadowy landscape in which cops moonlight as actors, black panthers make common cause with the Aryan Brotherhood, and a gathering of four people apparently qualifies as a cult.”
“It’s a lengthy burlesque on paranoia, on conspiracies both real and imagined, so dazed in its color schemes that Anderson clearly wants you to get stoned watching it,” writes Dan Callahan at TheWrap. “But the sense of being blissfully out-of-it, which can have its pleasures, soon drifts into another aspect of drug use: detachment…. The great strength of Anderson’s earlier movies was in their ensemble energy. His films gave the feeling that everyone was feeding off everyone else and working toward making a kind of seething mosaic on the rise and fall of a group—of mostly losers, some more colorful than others. Inherent Vice offers Anderson the opportunity to work again with a large ensemble, but the results wind up being drastically, even disastrously, different.”
At the AV Club, Ben Kenigsberg feels “like I’ve just watched a greatest-hits of film noir at high speed under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms. To see it again would be to see it for the first time…. Inherent Vice can be seen a chronological and spiritual prequel to Boogie Nights, a portrait of a last gasp of a idealist freedom in the face of government distrust and an encroaching private sector. In true Dude-like manner, Doc’s druggiest delusions prove to be justified.”
For the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, “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.”
“It’s shaggy, eccentric, and sometimes hilarious, but it has a tender heart,” writes Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey: “After a decade spent making two films that are like pressure cookers, he was clearly ready to blow off some steam.” And for Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, “the imperfections only deepen its appeal.” More from Erik Davis (Movies.com), Graham Fuller (Screen), Drew McWeeney (HitFix), Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, B+) and Martin Tsai (Critic’s Notebook).
Reporting for HitFix on the Q&A following yesterday’s press screening, Matt Patches notes that PTA “admitted to barely understanding the mystery at the heart of the novel, but each scene had its own seduction tactics—charm, intrigue or pure weirdness—that kept him hooked. He has similar feelings about The Big Sleep and other classic film noir. ‘I couldn’t follow any of it and it didn’t matter because I wanted to see what happened next,’ he said. ‘That was a good model to go on.'” More from Ashley Lee in the Hollywood Reporter.
Slate‘s Forrest Wickman confirms that the soundtrack also features an unreleased Radiohead tune, “Spooks,” “an instrumental song that the band played in the run-up to In Rainbows in 2006, and its surf-rock guitar makes it a good fit.”
Today (Sunday), PTA will be presenting clips from “films that have inspired and excited him.” In 2009, Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed Pynchon’s novel for Slate; recently, he’s posted his 1990 review of Vineland and his 1973 review of Gravity’s Rainbow.
Updates: Rummaging through YouTube and Spotify, the Film Stage has put together the complete soundtrack save for one new tune by Greenwood.
“Inherent Vice, using the blistering, painful form of confessional cinema PTA uncovered while making The Master, drifts though LA’s cinematic past, wearing the clothes of film noir like a thrift store suit, like Harper, Brick and Point Blank before it,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com. “It takes a little getting used to. It should. No one’s ever quite spoken this language before, so translating it is going to take time. Hard boiled shamus speak comes from the unshaven jaws of hippies, cops take extra work as actors, squeaky-voiced waifs deliver grizzled narration lined with astrological warnings, saxophone players are police informants, and so on. It’s a fictional construct gone topsy-turvy. Swim against the current, if you want, but it’s better to let the tide take you.”
Glenn Kenny notes that “the fun stuff engages but holds you in suspension, waiting for the kick in the gut. Which does happen. There is, about an hour and forty-five minutes into the film, a turnabout, a scene which again reproduces the dialogue and to a certain extent the action of a scene in the novel, but shifts the emphases in a way that’s pure Anderson, bringing a shocking amount of raw emotion and wrong to an exchange that the book almost throws away. The scene delivers what the film has been withholding, and this places everything that’s come before in a sort of relief, and colors everything that comes after. It is, to my mind, pretty incredible.”
“Anderson has transformed Pynchon’s world into his own raucous trip through the come-down of the Nixon era, one which speaks to the filmmaker’s personal and vast cinematic memory, philosophies, and politics,” writes Chris Cabin at Slant. “For the many narrative alleys Anderson’s film ducks down, the relationship between Bjornsen and Sportello remains crucial, a tenuous partnership between a brooding, buzz-cut hippie-hater and a humanistic dope-head with an office in a doctor’s practice. Though Inherent Vice is a far more slippery and volatile work than arguably any of Anderson’s previous work, it builds off the same sort of relationship that denoted his two previous films. The gruesome capitalist and the power-drunk preacher depend on one another in There Will Be Blood, as does the ferocious, impulsive animal and the articulate, repressed charlatan in The Master. In this case, two opposing views of how the promise of America in the 1960s started to decay are juxtaposed, one that sees drugs as the root of all evil, and another that sees the rise of justifiable violence and municipal corruption as the beginning of the end.”
Updates, 10/6: “To see a movie this guy makes of that guy’s novel, you don’t buy a ticket so much as you cram for a final,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “Relax, though–as Pynchon did writing Inherent Vice and Anderson did in filming it. For both men, and for their audiences, this is a vacation at the beach, albeit one on a stormy day, with the odd corpse washing ashore at high tide.”
At the Film Stage, Nick Newman suggests that, watching Inherent Vice, “one realizes this, more than anything, is a visual translation of author Thomas Pynchon’s notoriously difficult prose styling. If familiar words take on new meaning with little more than slight adjustments of syntax, discomfiting even the best-read minds by jutting out from seemingly ordinary sentences, there’s no reason a responsible visual stylist shouldn’t follow suit…. Alas, Inherent Vice’s key folly is an inability to reconcile piece and whole: hit the mark as a drug comedy (sometimes screamingly so) and work wonders with its seemingly untenable ensemble though the picture certainly does… the picture is so often and so violently oscillating between extremely dense narrative trappings and shaggy-dog set pieces that its form, no doubt to be called ‘loose-limbed’ by many, runs the risk of becoming (and sometimes succumbs to being) bled-out.”
In the Los Angeles Times, Steven Zeitchik suggests that Inherent Vice has “the markings of a cult hit. Of course, there’s something weird about writing those words 24 hours after a movie has screened. A cult hit has traditionally been defined as a movie dismissed by the mainstream but, over time, embraced by a small, hard-core following that grows the movie’s stature by repetition and reinforcement. But cult hits, like so much else, may be turning into something else in this social-media Insta-age, when even a movie’s long-term status is divined as filmgoers are still leaving the theater.”
More from Dustin Chang at Twitch.
Updates, 10/7: “I’ve heard it said that Inherent Vice is Anderson’s return to ‘ensemble movies’ after the relatively intimate The Master,” notes New York‘s David Edelstein. “Er, no. It’s not an ensemble film—it’s a showcase for Phoenix (he’s in almost every shot) with a lot of guest stars, cameos, and hipster drop-ins.” The film is “actually less coherent than Pynchon, no small feat. It’s not shallow, though. Underneath the surface is a vision of the counterculture fading into the past, at the mercy of the police state and the encroachment of capitalism. But I’m not sure the whole thing jells. At two and a half hours, it overstays its welcome. It’s stubbornly shapeless.”
“It’s hard to shake the feeling that the effects Anderson desires are sometimes irreconcilably at odds,” writes Max Nelson for Film Comment. “He wants the God’s-eye scope of Stendhal without Stendhal’s cynical, Machiavellian streak; Melville’s deep, burrowing insight into the American consciousness without Melville’s willingness to speak in tones as earnest and grave as those of a sacred text. Pynchon, an author uniquely gifted at forcing ironic, self-consciously goofy elements to co-exist with sincere and unapologetically moving ones, might be the closest thing Anderson has to a literary model…. One of Inherent Vice’s greatest strengths is the seamless tonal synthesis it finds between the jocular casualness of a stoned-out shaggy dog story and the full tragic sense of a historical saga: in this case, an elegy for a generation’s burnt-out dreams.”
Update, 10/8: PTA “understands the modernist Chandlerian notion that the private investigator’s solution of the crime is not the thing that matters,” writes Doug Dibbern in the Notebook. “The only thing that Joaquin Phoenix is really exploring in this movie is the paranoid state of Los Angeles in the 1970s. The only thing to learn about all the schizoid connections between everyone in the film is that understanding how these social networks work will never help these characters —or us—make any sense of anything…. And that’s why it’s impossible to write about this film. Because there is no there there.” Still, “there might be an invisible congress of electric harps that was giving birth to the psychedelic mania splayed out before us not as a jaded analysis of a lost generation but purely as an audiovisual feast.”
Update, 10/9: Melissa Anderson for Artforum: “The thick fog of conspiracies, in which even pizza parties double as sinister gatherings, betrays the era’s rampant paranoia—delusions that aren’t always the result of ingesting psychoactive substances (agents from COINTELPRO make an appearance). That these nefarious activities are often punctuated by sight gags or droll one-liners only enhances, rather than diminishes, the film’s deep melancholy.”
Updates, 10/10: At Reverse Shot, Jeff Reichert notes that “this Inherent Vice is a production that required the full support of those titans of cultural conformity toward which Pynchon’s novels have long cast a wearily jaundiced eye. Return of the repressed or just further proof of the mainstream culture system’s massively absorptive qualities? Does it matter? This is more observation than criticism…. So stunningly faithful is the adaptation, and so chameleonic does the adapter prove to be, one might wonder for a moment where Anderson, one of the few acknowledged virtuosos in American cinema, actually is in all of this. He’s there, if you’re looking.” Examples of that virtuosity are then enumerated.
“My initial feeling,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, “is that Inherent Vice has moments of greatness, and maybe even profound currents of greatness, including yet another tremendous performance from Joaquin Phoenix that should win major awards but won’t. But it’s also an incredibly uneven patchwork job that may wind up in the category of Interesting Failure. (One friend, who hasn’t seen it, asked me whether Inherent Vice qualifies as the Hudsucker Proxy of Anderson’s career. Not bad!)”
For Owen Gleiberman, now with the BBC, “the trouble with Inherent Vice is that its heart of darkness keeps shifting around. That’s supposed to be the point: 1970 wasn’t about definitions, man! It was about the lack of definition. Yet this fuzziness turns the movie into a detective yarn that’s captivatingly disheveled around the edges but so studiously off-centre that, by the end, it barely has a center at all.”
Update, 11/2: PTA “takes risks that lesser filmmakers don’t even know are possible,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “Because the film’s incidents are at once entirely random and frighteningly coherent—they’re the odds and ends that feed into paranoid delusion, or the proof that paranoia is not delusional—Inherent Vice keeps introducing character after character, plot after plot, in a structure that lacks niceties such as ‘while’ and ‘although’ (let alone ‘because’) but is all ‘and, and, and, and.’ Anderson throws everything he’s got at the story to keep it going, from slapstick and hallucination to ultraviolence and degraded sex. I will have to see Inherent Vice again to know if I feel it succeeds.”
Updates, 11/10: “Inherent Vice, for all its bravado and wit, stands or falls apart on Katherine Waterston’s slender shoulders,” suggests Howard Hampton in Film Comment:
On the page, Shasta Fay is your classic femme cipher, believable to the extent of Doc’s need to project his longings onto her. Waterston, working in two slow-burning, aria-like monologues of affectionate calculation and uncertain, highly compartmentalized motives, turns a threadbare archetype into someone painfully real and poetically resonant. Her tour de force seduction of Doc, mostly performed while naked, uncorking a slow drip of role-playing, self-revilement, vulnerability, and desperate control that’s indistinguishable from nihilistic abandon, expresses more about sex as a weapon and a survival strategy than a thousand footnoted treatises on the femme fatale in film noir. It’s everything Anderson couldn’t yet get on film in Boogie Nights (97); like Doc, Anderson and Phoenix are just along for the ride, besotted and overcome. It’s the most despondently sexy scene you can imagine, but its power—Waterston’s power and the human weakness within it—comes from how honestly she conveys the eternal allure of the truly, emphatically fucked-up. Despondency, black humor, and fantasy all converge like these were the last two contestants (or three if you count Anderson) in an erotic demolition derby—winner take cover.
Ioncinema‘s Eric Lavallee gives Inherent Vice three out of five stars.
Update, 11/15: Stephen Rebello interviews Phoenix for Playboy: “Arrogant? Combative? Uncommunicative? Please. He might rather have been doing something else—maybe anything else—but Joaquin was frank, talkative and endearingly off center.”
Update, 11/17: The Prince Charles Cinema‘s hosting a special screening on Wednesday to benefit The Film Foundation, and PTA’s cut a new trailer:
Updates, 11/23: “For Pynchon, and Anderson too, the gumshoe’s death rattle is about more than just the waning of a beloved genre, more than boring wistfulness for oldfangled articulations of tough-guy masculinity and toxic femininity,” writes John Semley in the New York Times Magazine. “Genres, and their corresponding tropes, disappear all the time…. But Doc’s declining business suggests something much more sinister—that the operations of power and authority he ducks and jukes and straight-up bungles through are closing off, locking him and anyone else who stands in slouched opposition on the outside.”
“Anderson’s alternately hammy and hard-boiled script is ripped from the black-and-white downtown L.A. of the ’50s,” writes Jesse Barron in the New Inquiry. “But Inherent Vice is also a movie in ’60s Malibu pastels. Set about a quarter of a century before throwbacks like L.A. Confidential, Vice belongs to the time when Los Angeles was turning into the place that plays itself. The most influential police chief of the mid-1960s, William H. Parker, was also a consultant on Dragnet, the most influential procedural drama in American television history. Valley of the Dolls came out in 1967, a commercial hit and the first cautionary tale of New Hollywood, and in 1969 the American New Wave arrived with the near-simultaneous release of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, both filmed in and informed by L.A. In Vice, every character is performing a role, and not always in the same kind of movie. We watch, as if flipping through the years, a stoner comedy, a period caper, a neo-noir.”
Updates, 12/9: “Inherent Vice is not only the first Pynchon movie; it could also, I suspect, turn out to be the last.” The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane: “Either way, it is the best and the most exasperating that we’ll ever have. It reaches out to his ineffable sadness, and almost gets there. I am as suckered as the next guy by the sight o