I love me some Paul Thomas Anderson, y’all. I still get chills thinking about how There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Punch-Drunk Love made me feel after I watched ’em. There’s something so brutally deep about both the mood and the color palette of his movies that, for lack of a better phrase, really speaks to me. I look forward to being dumbfounded at the end of (usually) two-and-a-half hours. And so I was inherently stoked to see Inherent Vice.
I came out of it inherently angry, for reasons I’m only beginning to understand now. I wanted to like this movie, because PTA is arguably my favorite director, and he cast a slough of wonderful people, and he was trying to do something a little different here, in putting someone else’s words on the big screen rather than his own. But I really didn’t like it. I liked some of the parts, but not nearly enough parts to categorize the whole experience as a “like.” Damn it.
Much of my dislike coincides with my ignorance and/or naïveté. I haven’t read the Thomas Pynchon book on which this movie was based. I wasn’t around in the 1970’s, nor have I spent very much time in Los Angeles, nor have I done any drugs. So, with those qualifiers in mind, I don’t “get it.” And I felt the same way towards Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both movies, after I watched them, filled me with a sense of annoyance and frustration. I couldn’t place the plot, I didn’t find the funny parts funny, and I didn’t understand what, exactly, was so deserving of the love letter that Pynchon/S. Thompson was obviously writing. The cities, yes. The drugs, definitely. But the other intangible thing? It’s there, and I don’t know what it is, and it bugs me.
All of PTA’s other movies meander, sure, but what they’re about is made clear by the time you’re back out in the sunlight. This one left me cold. I felt like I had just watched a bunch of fantastic actors reenact and succumb to the powers of a culture they never really lived through, for the sake of pure indulgence. No statement was Made.
Joaquin Phoenix was, of course, incredible. He always is. And, despite his character Doc’s many inherent vices (OH THAT PART MAKES SENSE NOW), he displayed an alarming clarity that I hadn’t seen in him in any other movie. Doc made his way through a loosey-goosey investigation, and seemed to be doing a pretty good job of it throughout, even when smoking pot and snorting cocaine. Joanna Newsom also earned some major points from me as Sortilege, the narrator, because without her I wouldn’t have had literally any idea what was going on in this film. Her occasional insights helped, and her voice was soothing. The rest of the aforementioned “slough,” Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, Michael Kenneth Williams, all provided their specific brands of supposed comic relief, but as I mentioned before, it was hard to place their purposes in the story. Really good to see Benicio again, though. Guy is not around enough. (And thank you, PTA, for finally giving your lovely wife a named credit in one of your flicks. Overdue!)
I want to have some sort of takeaway from this movie. I want it to tell me that drugs are bad, which I guess it did by virtue of showing Martin Short do a bunch of blow. That’s an odd visual. I want it to tell me that you can’t really let go of your past, which it did by virtue of Doc going on an indeterminate wild goose chase for his long-lost lady love, the “goose” still being unclear to me. But those takeaways are weak, and I know PTA is better than that. Listening to his WTF episode helped a little (as I’ve found to be the case lately), because I found out that this thing was indeed some sort of love letter to his dear LA, but I couldn’t find a way in to appreciate that. So many other movies appreciate LA in other, more relatable ways. This one just seemed like another one to throw on the pile, except with more actors I like. But maybe I’ll give the movie another shot in a few years. And, hey, I don’t have to like everything PTA has ever done.