Sean K. Cureton

Incoherent Innocence

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on January 24, 2015 at 4:05 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
4 out of 4 stars

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is characteristically idiosyncratic, set in 1970 California, and hosting a cast of characters who seem to float in and out of the proverbial hippie daydream only just beginning to turn into a nightmare, Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration ushering in an era of political unrest and police-state paranoia, the peace and love beatniks of the 1960’s rendered impotent in their quaint attachment to non-violent expressionism and excessive Dionysian recreation. Based on the neo-noir by the great American post-modern novelist Thomas Pynchon, Anderson’s Inherent Vice is like a few too many acid trips gone bad, its protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello, taking on the role of private investigator lifted straight from the pages of Raymond Chandler, dazed and confused in a California filled to the brim with red herring characters, clues, and plot devices, missing persons seeming to turn up or disappear entirely, as the case may be, amid a fog of marijuana smoke and a collapsing bohemia. As Sportello wends his way across a dilapidated tapestry of typically Pynchonian misdirection, the world around “Doc” fills with a contrastingly vibrant levity unseen in an Anderson picture since Boogie Nights, its characters spouting deliriously literary lines of dialogue delightfully lifted directly from Pynchon’s novel, and the central mystery of the film’s plot becomes secondary. Under Anderson’s precociously mischievous gaze, each and every exchange, situation, and comic moment appears to be imbued with a relevance all its own, the characters allowed to eat up the scenery in the process, literally as well as figuratively, evolving from mere caricature to a three dimensionality that lends the film a humanity to offset its latent cynicism, leading to a conclusion that proves satisfying, bringing a close to not only the film, but the ethos of the hippie movement. In this way, Inherent Vice acts as an ode to an entire decade of American history, summarizing the unfulfilled promise of an era that still feels possible if not probable, a daydream still wishing to be fulfilled, the film itself another entry into a cinematic oeuvre that has come to be defined by a proverbial loss of innocence, our own or Anderson’s left open for interpretation.

In adapting one of the lesser works of one of the great American novelists, Anderson’s film feels suggestive at times of being taken in as a comprehensive masterpiece of contemporary American fiction, and yet is tonally disinterested with becoming overtly coherent. Through the distorting and transformative power of Pynchon’s prose, the film becomes cinematic, with Anderson’s direction simultaneously distancing the film from the text’s more post-modern construction, while imbuing its meticulous plotting with a more characteristic penchant for tragic-comic theatrics, turning the near incoherence of the script on its head, the film’s central detective narrative less about the solution to any individual case, and more about the characters whose lives become interwoven with one another’s, the Altman-esque pastiche of Magnolia revisited. Like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice is possessed by whimsy and a devil-may-care attitude, its listless ease making for one of Anderson’s funniest films in years, harking back to the creative energy of Boogie Nights, while maintaining the more focused gaze of both There Will Be Blood and The Master. With his sights set so keenly on the crashing wave of 1960’s Americana, Anderson builds upon his pre-established love for period playacting, his film less of an historical set piece than it is a kaleidoscopic look into the past, familiar in its evocation of a time well remembered, while being distorted through the lens of subjective nostalgia, lending all of the Pynchonian unease arising with the dawn of an era remembered less fondly. Sportello, like Dirk Diggler, is an innocent traipsing his way across a dreamscape of hopeful possibility very quickly turning into a landscape of cold reality, paving the way for characters such as Daniel Plainview to take up residence in a brave new world of more clearly defined ambition, making Inherent Vice the most complex and comprehensive film, stylistically speaking, of Anderson’s entire career, seeming to encapsulate the creative aspirations of an entire oeuvre in the span of two and a half hours, an ambitious goal that is more often than not admirably achieved, ironically making Inherent Vice his most cohesive achievement to date.

And yet, for all of Inherent Vice’s narrative invention, gleefully opaque in its mimicry of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, alluding to Anderson’s stylistic debts while paving an authorial path all its own, the film wends its way through neo-noir pastiche with a gleefulness that borders on the chaotic, its convoluted plot structure as charming as it is impenetrable. It might be enough to simply say that understanding all of the various facets of the film’s meticulously constructed script is besides the point, its incoherence in and of itself an aesthetic coherence found in the film’s spot on evocation of time, place, and character, but such an analysis fails to accurately distill the exactitude of the essence of the film’s unmistakably beautiful and melancholic tone. The reason why “Doc” Sportello is such a fantastically rendered protagonist comes in Anderson’s cinematic recreation of Pynchon’s language through the visual medium of film, the marriage of literature and celluloid through adaptation providing for one of the most moving evocations of Anderson’s deeply felt empathy for archetypically innocent characters inhabiting ever more corrosive and corrupted worlds. Like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice is fundamentally a coming of age story, Sportello’s identification as a part of the hippie counterculture of the 1960’s at the dawn of the 1970’s marking his character for imminent cosmic upheaval, the malaise of peace and love giving way to the turbulence of pervasive aggression and conservative policies. When Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen finally kicks in Sportello’s door at film’s end, it’s almost as if “Doc’s” hippie daydream has been invaded by the dour consciousness of the Nixon era, the bummer that is “Bigfoot” signaling the return of Republican politics, liberalism accordingly associated with our shared and ever ephemeral innocence.

In more ways than one the spiritual predecessor to the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, that other thoroughly post-modern take on Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled literary tradition, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest directorial effort is perhaps his best film since Magnolia, possessing all of its warmth, humor, and intelligence, without getting bogged down in the over indulgence of some of his more recent cinematic work. Thomas Pynchon’s writing has never been quite this snappy and lightly handled, the ponderousness of his prose coming to life in Anderson’s film, thanks in part to one of the greatest ensemble casts of any of Anderson’s films yet, the exactitude of the literary construction of the dialogue seemingly made fluid in its delivery, lacking the self-consciousness more typically experienced when reading Pynchon. In Anderson’s continued evocation of the style and cinematic oeuvre of Robert Altman, Inherent Vice is thoroughly familiar, lending the film’s plot much of its light-hearted panache, the weariness that might otherwise come with its ambition and headiness tempered by a learned aestheticism and form, lending a certain constructiveness to the script’s more free-flowing and improvisatory invention. In more ways than one, Larry “Doc” Sportello might be the most thoroughly Andersonian character yet, his innate innocence seemingly incorruptible, the seeming incoherence of his rambling gait and unfocused attentions lending shape and definition to a world that is vibrantly alive, its vitality an undiluted distillation of the essence of Anderson’s directorial wonder and whimsy. And thus, the question of whether or not Anderson has lost his own porverbial innocence in the process of making his way to the creative high that he finds himself operating from with the release of this, his seventh feature film, becomes irrelevant, his ability to capture the loss of such innocence through fictive characters who are consistently and sympathetically drawn proving to be more important, an incoherent innocence more satisfying than a coherent maturity.

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