REVIEW: Inherent Vice | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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fourDirector: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Joanna Newsom

Run Time: 148 mins

Certificate: 15


Nobody should go into reading a Thomas Pynchon novel thinking that it’s going to be an easy ride. Filled with labyrinthine language, more plot twists than you can shake a stick at and characters so strange you’d think they were from another planet, Pynchon’s novels are sometimes hard work, but often insanely rewarding. If you can wrap your head around what’s going on – or even just enjoy the lyricism of the language – then picking up a Pynchon novel can take you into another fully-realised world. Just because Pynchon’s literary worlds are beautifully rendered, though, doesn’t make it automatic bait for the silver screen. Indeed, anyone who decides to take on the monstrously complicated Gravity’s Rainbow and bring it to film will need some serious luck in pulling it off.

Paul Thomas Anderson has been sensible in his choice of Pynchon novel. While Inherent Vice isn’t a straightforward narrative by any means, it’s certainly one of Pynchon’s most accessible novels. Essentially Pynchon’s take on noir and crime, it’s a brilliantly psychedelic and, quite frankly, bonkers look into the state of the 1970s, the decline of “hippy” values and the sordid underbelly of American culture.

It’s perhaps for the best that protagonist Larry “Doc” Sportello, played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, is almost always completely stoned. There’s not a moment that goes by when he isn’t smoking a joint, snorting cocaine or making use of the free supply of oxygen in his office. Oftentimes this makes the story seem like a figment of his imagination. Some of the events that occur over the course of the film are so bizarre that they could easily be chalked up to being Doc’s hallucinations. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to explain everything that happens in Inherent Vice without taking an age. In a very small nutshell, Doc is visited one day by his old flame Shasta (Katherine Waterston) who tells him of a plan to send her lover, a powerful building magnate, to an asylum. A few days later she goes missing, and Doc goes on a mission to get to the bottom of a mystery. If that doesn’t sound so farfetched, then throw in a cast of characters including a hardball detective, a Chinese prostitute, a dead saxophone player, a host of neo-Nazis, a baseball bat-obsessed thug, a drug-addled dentist and a mysterious outlet known as the Golden Fang (which may or may not just be a tax avoidance scheme) and you’ve got a recipe for narrative carnage.

Luckily, Anderson handles the source material with a great deal of deft. Part of this is undoubtedly due to his decision to make narrator Sortilege (played by harpist Joanna Newsom) a main character. Her appearances both as a character and as a mouthpiece for the underlying issues help to tie everything together. The language used in Sortilege’s monologues and recollections is directly lifted from Pynchon’s novel and Newsom’s languid Californian tones lilt over the words in such a way that it’s difficult not to pay attention to her. This makes it much easier to understand the underlying themes of what is going on and this, arguably, is what really matters. The occasionally skittering plot doesn’t matter so much in comparison to what Inherent Vice is really trying to say about American culture and politics, so making Sortilege a key character helps to ground the film with some particularly weighty subject matter.

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Despite the heavy underlying themes, most of Doc’s story takes him through ludicrous situations that frequently raise a smile

Perhaps a little ironically, this is actually one of Anderson’s most directorially accessible works. While he has a distinctive, almost auteur style, consisting of slow-paced shots and relatively little editing compared to the average Hollywood film, Anderson opts for a more kinetic approach with Inherent Vice. Often the camera will follow Doc in long takes behind him, flowing freely from side to side on dollies or occasionally appearing to walk right behind him (never underestimate the power of the handheld camera). It’s also much faster paced than his previous efforts, particularly compared to the elegiac nature of There Will Be Blood or The Master. This isn’t surprising considering the jumpy and frenetic nature of the narrative, but it’s a joy to see Anderson turn his hand to something more filled with action.

It’s also, undoubtedly, Anderson’s funniest film to date. Despite the heavy underlying themes, most of Doc’s story takes him through ludicrous situations that frequently raise a smile. From the false advertising of the “two pussy massage” to his wigged-out encounter with a highly flamboyant dentist, not to mention Doc’s own numerous witticisms and observations, Inherent Vice is extremely humorous. Bearing more than a resemblance to some of the pitch-black humour found in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo or The Big Lebowski, it casually drops cutting remarks and throws in ludicrous situations for the audience’s entertainment (and often poor Doc’s bafflement).

Of course, the danger with adapting a Pynchon novel is that, no matter how hard you try, there will always be something missing. Inherent Vice happens to be one of Pynchon’s shorter novels (nothing in comparison to his magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow), but even despite this it’s crammed with so much content that Anderson undoubtedly had a difficult job figuring out what to remove. For the most part, the narrative remains relatively untouched; the near two and a half hour running time ensures that most of the story can be included and, thankfully, not rushed. Sometimes, though, things are lost a little in the hustle and bustle of the action, and even more is lost through not quite being able to catch every detail of the dialogue on a first viewing. It’s commendable that Anderson doesn’t dumb Inherent Vice down and explain everything a thousand times, but occasionally there are moments where this means the plot is a little difficult to follow (even for a die-hard Pynchon fan).

Nevertheless, Anderson has still achieved something remarkable by bringing the godfather of postmodern literature to the big screen. Helped by some incredible performances, generally razor-sharp writing and a slight change in directorial style, Inherent Vice is likely to be the film that confirms Paul Thomas Anderson’s place as a modern master of film.

Inherent Vice is now showing at the Tyneside Cinema.

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