Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterson, Owen Wilson, Martin Short
Release Date: Limited (Dec 12th 2014) Wide Release (Jan. 9th 2015)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few directors we have left that is a distinct filmmaker who hasn't won an Oscar but makes films that are revered classics and known by cinephiles as being experts of craft in front of the camera and behind it. PTA is one of the filmmakers left who voices his love for Film over Digital practically with his use of gorgeous 70mm on 2012's The Master. His career is also a mixed bag of films. He got his start by making very Altman-esque ensemble movies like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, gave Adam Sandler some of his best reviews in Punch Drunk Love, and arguably reminded people why we thought Joaquin was sucha great actor with his performance in The Master, and it's hard to not talk about Phillip Seymour Hoffman without mentioning some of PTA's work.
Now we have Inherent Vice. a late 60's-early 70's story that brings PTA back to Altman territory with an insane Ensemble cast and a film reminiscent of Altman's The Long Goodbye which starred Elliot Gould as gumshoe Phillip Marlowe in the 70's detective classic. Vice however is based on reclusive author Thomas Pynchon, who has never had work adapted to film until now.
The story concerns Stoner/Hippie P.I., Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is visited by his ex-old lady (Katherine Waterson) who asks him to look into a potential scheme involving her lover, a wealthy real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and his disappearance which is probably has something to do with his wife and current lover wanting to admit him into a looney bin or as the movie refers to it a "booby hatch." Along the way Doc runs into a missing rock star-informant (Owen Wilson), his attorney whose main focus is Maritime law (Benicio Del Toro), his part-time lover who works for the D.A. (Reese Witherspoon), a loopy, drug-addicted Dentist (Martin Short), and his cop frenemy Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. Confused? Don't worry, you probably will be.
From what I read online, PTA pretty much adapted the book page by page into a screenplay and you can tell from watching the film. Information from characters feel like pages worth of explanation and from the poetic narration that is beautifully provided by Joanna Newsom in moments of dreamy, poetic thoughts that don't add anything to the plot but add to the atmosphere. Newsom's character I'm also convinced may be a figment of the imagination.
If you have read this much of the review so far, you may already know if you'll enjoy Vice or not. I can tell right now that this film will be the biggest Love-Hate of the Oscar season. Some seasoned critics and film snobs will praise the oddball nature of the film and it's deconstruction of the end of 60's Hippie culture while others will be bored out of their skulls. Yes, the movie is not an easy one to decipher right off the bat. It'll probably take at least two viewings to understand all the characters and motivations, but it's definitely not fast food entertainment. People looking for a mind-less, comedic, joyride with a standing ovation resolution will find themselves leaving the theater disappointed. But, like 2012's The Master, Vice is a movie you have to give yourself to, one that needs to wash over you like a bong hit. A film where there is so much going down, it can't be pinned down by one sitting and needs full attention to detail.
However, what Vice boils down to is the Ying-Yang of two character PTA has examined in previous films (There Will Be Blood's Daniel and Eli represented Capitalism vs. Religion, The Master's Freddie and Lancaster represented Servitude vs. Leadership) and the strongest relationship aspect of Vice is Joaquin's Doc and Brolin's Bigfoot representing a ying-yang of Hippie free-spiritism vs. Conservative values. Brolin and Phoenix's dynamic almost plays out like a buddy cop film at some points and play wonderfully off eachother. In my opinion, it's probably Josh Brolin's best work and the role he was born for with his steel eyes, flat top hair, and All-American jawline and a seductive way of eating a chocolate covered banana. His relationship with Doc is almost more of the heart of the film than that of Joaquin's Doc and an outstanding Katherine Waterson's Shasta, who is a scene-stealer in her own right. Joaquin is almost in every frame and his shaggy dog P.I. plays wonderfully off a barrage of supporting characters without overshadowing them. Joaquin's Freddie in the Master was a wild animal that commanded the screen and here Joaquin gets to relax a little more and play off hilarious facial tics and inner emotion. It's a performance that will be overshadowed by his greatest works but still a great performance.
I have a lot of thoughts, ideas, theories, etc. of what is going on in Inherent Vice and what it all means but take this review as my highest recommendation. It's not a perfect film, it's not PTA's best but it was the late in the game prestige film that I needed to see to convince me that 2014 wasn't a total loss for great films. If you are already a PTA fan it will not disappoint in terms of technical ability, soundtrack, See it, See it with an open mind, maybe grab a joint, then see it again. Not in that particular order.