Burn While Watching: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Masterful Boogie, “Inherent Vice”
Paul Thomas Anderson‘s new movie is very strange, and left me, even more than “The Master,” completely disoriented after its first viewing. Anderson threw me into this world, or more like lulled me into it thanks to Joanna Newsom‘s narrator Sortilège, and kept spinning me like a spinning top while exhaling marijuana smoke with Bob Marley-levels of thickness right into my face. “I’m glad I was there, loved hanging out with those people, don’t know what the fuck it was all about, can’t wait to be back.” That was my insta-reaction to”Inherent Vice.” I knew I had to see it at least once more before writing about it.
The second time around was a much more sober experience. I followed more closely, understood the Coy Harlingen and Sauncho Smilax characters more, but still got lost right before Martin Short makes his incredibly entertaining cameo. Understanding Harlingen and Smilax made me appreciate Owen Wilson blending into the film’s context surprisingly well just by being Owen Wilson, and Benicio Del Toro at his funniest best, respectively. The second time around, more importantly, I confirmed my impression that the film’s core themes are defined by Larry “Doc” Sportello’s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationships with, first, his ex old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston, in breakthrough mode), and secondly, Bigfoot (Josh Brolin, giving an ultra-layered performance). And then, it hit me like a ton of bricks made of duh: every Anderson film is defined by the relationships of his characters. “Inherent Vice” is just the most elliptical Anderson film yet, and it’s deliberately confusing to the point of making you think the plot matters more than the characters. I felt ready to write.
Seen through the context of his filmography, Anderson has bridged “The Master” with “Boogie Nights” to make for a profoundly befuddling ‘Masterful Boogie;’ the funnest, yet cleverly thoughtful and intuitive, surprisingly emotive, yet hilariously bonkers, detective story probably ever put on screen. Adapting the ‘unadaptable’ Thomas Pynchon for the first time, Anderson uses his masterful screenwriting skills (if he’s not the greatest director Hollywood has right now, he’s surely its greatest screenwriter) to give us enough of each major character, with Doc Sportello usually out of focus but rarely out of sight. Working with Joaquin Phoenix again proves a total win, because we’re clearly dealing with an instinctive animal of Brando proportions in Phoenix; under the same director, he gives a totally different performance by camouflaging himself into the material. His volatile, unpredictable Freddie Quell isn’t even the same sport as his goofy, predictable Doc Sportello; performances that seem inspired by the men’s preferred drugs of choice; home-made chemical concoctions posing as liquor in Freddie’s case, and copious amounts of marijuana in Doc’s. With Phoenix’ help, and given the chronological order of the two periods in the films, “Inherent Vice” can be seen as “The Master’s” oddball companion. The post-war malaise of the 1950s becomes shrouded by the romantic, breezy, cloud of the 1970s.
The other close sibling is “Boogie Nights.” Obviously because of the overlapping time periods, but also because it’s another colorful and carefree ensemble piece with a clear protagonist (a completely different prescription than the melancholic seriousness, and more evenly spread ensemble, of “Magnolia“). For added measure, this is also the most chilled out soundtrack for an Anderson movie since “Boogie Nights.” For the most part, “Inherent Vice” shows us how Anderson has evolved as a director since 1997; mostly if you think about his camera movements, and especially when they’re interior (where most of “Boogie Nights” and “Inherent Vice” take place). Whereas his porn legend has a very mobile, very nosy, camera following characters around like it’s on a Robert Altman set, his pot legend is more interested in framing, slow, gradual, movements and more time spent with the characters. And that’s characters, not character arcs, because the latter is a storytelling convention Anderson does without in “Inherent Vice.” Whether these people change, evolve, or learn something, is beside the point of them simply existing in this time. The scene that depicts this brilliantly is the naked Shasta on the couch, in what is probably my favourite unobtrusive and humble single take of the whole year, giving an incredibly moving monologue edging towards the superfluous but firmly rooted in the superfly.
This balance of the superfluous and the superfly defines the film’s tone. You’ll listen to Sortilège telling you Doc’s story, and you’ll follow Doc around as he tries to figure out why Shasta’s new boyfriend might be in trouble. How he gets embroiled with the Aryan brotherhood, dentists, the Golden Fang, and missing saxophone players is best experienced along with him. Thanks to how subtle and deliberately unhinged Anderson’s direction is, “Inherent Vice” whisks you into its world in an instant, and keeps you there for the most part. It’s only the second-time around, though, that you realize why the whisking works so well. The screenplay bubbles with sweet-sounding prose, quotable dialogue and memorable interactions, (that it’s now nominated for an Academy Award ranks very highly in the department of pleasant surprises). That ridiculously talented cast mentioned above (including Michael K. Williams and Jenna Malone nailing their scenes, one adorably funny Hong Chau, and a pretty good Reese Witherspoon) act like they didn’t need much direction, and leave the impression that the set of “Inherent Vice” was the greatest ever. Robert Elswit‘s cinematography, the same man who made slime look sublime in “Nightcrawler,” wraps you in a blanket’s warmth, generated by body heat thanks to the amount of close-ups and close medium shots. Johnny Greenwood outdoes himself, mingling his compositions with the various artists from the 70s like they’re all part of the same surfer’s playlist. The time period, primarily evoked by the narration and costume designer Mark Bridges (Anderson’s longest collaborator, working together since, and including, “Hard Eight“), at times feels like the only true focal point because it’s omnipresent in every scene, most especially when it features Phoenix’ nonplussed Doc and Brolin’s hippie-loathing Bigfoot interacting as the year’s greatest screen duo.
In a blurred burst of irony, Paul Thomas Anderson solidifies his status as one of America’s most important filmmaking voices by making the funniest film of his career. His voice remains intact because the depth and importance of his themes and settings remain defined by his characters’ relationships. For those interested in tracing a director’s arc through his career, one of the most sober thoughts that form after a second viewing is that “Inherent Vice” truly belongs in Anderson’s filmography. This is his Masterful Boogie, but it also reminds us how refreshingly original his perspective on romance is amidst Hollywood’s putrid infatuation with only the most superficial of relationship tropes. What other romantic US-movie couples can compare to Barry and Lena from “Punch Drunk Love” and, now, Doc and Shasta, in the 20th century? Not many, thanks mostly to how their stories are told and not what label they may represent in today’s obsessively politically correct and gender-crazed culture.
With “Inherent Vice,” Anderson shows his versatility in tone and scope (“There Will Be Blood,” as his only other adaptation, feels like it’s part of another galaxy) and his evolution as filmmaker from the early days of more transparently influenced direction. For this one, he cites film noir classics “The Big Sleep” and “Kiss Me Deadly” as sources of inspiration, and certainly the hazily progressive atmosphere of Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” influences the similar vibe in “Inherent Vice.” For a more contemporary comparison, the film plays out like PTA does Coen Brothers. The whacky and daringly pointless comedic side of the Coens as seen in “The Big Lebowski” and “Burn After Reading,” mixed with their particular brand of the comic-noir as seen in “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo.” But a whole encyclopedia of comparisons and inspirations can’t describe the current artistic level Anderson is operating on; a level with multiple, multi-layered, signals. It’s like he’s still in this phase of exploring America’s suspect past in order to come to terms with its agitated present, by making movies that feel way ahead of their time.