I had a lot of time to mull over Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” After spending two and a half long hours with this highly anticipated film, I then spent another two and a half hours at the Broadway opening of the British National Theater hit “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”
The former has a lot of stars– Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, appearances by Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon, and the socko introduction of Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam). The latter has none, just some solid American actors and a 25 year recent Juilliard grad named Alex Sharp who will be nominated for a Tony Award next spring and may win.
When something really works, you know it. You feel it. No one has to explain it afterwards. “Curious Incident” is like that. I saw it in London in July. The play has such an unusual set that when I saw it before last night’s opening began, I felt like it was seeing an old great friend. I couldn’t wait for everyone to meet it.
On the other hand, you know that “Inherent Vice” is a big happy mess almost from the start. And when you’re convinced of it, you have two choices– walk out (as some did) or stick around and just enjoy the quirks. Anderson has really made “Incoherent Vice” from an impossibly constructed novel. There is a little plot and a little story, but not enough to drive a film. When the screening was over, some of the cast (not PTA or Joaquin or Reese) came to help explain what we’d seen. Good luck.
Anderson is an ambitious director who has made some of my favorite films, like “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.” The latter film was often cited as being plot-less. Well, “IV” goes well beyond that. Set in 1970 to Neil Young music of that era (approximately), the movie is filmed in a cloud of marijuana smoke. There isn’t a scene in which someone, mostly Phoenix’s private eye “Doc,” isn’t already high or getting high. And that’s the notion of the film– that some things are real, others are imagined, there’s a lot of fantasy and what more high falutin’ types might call “magical reality.”
The main story seems to be “Doc” investigating the disappearance of a former girl friend named Shasta (Katherine Waterston). This involves the search for a business magnate (Eric Roberts) and the many zany characters he meets along the way. One of them is a cop named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) who is the Yin to Doc’s Yang.
The other character who remains in the forefront is played by Joanna Newsom. In real life, Newsom is a musician and the wife of “SNL” grad Andy Samberg. Like everyone else in “IV,” she’s very engaging. Her Sortilege is the narrator of the film, much like Linda Manz in Terrence Malick’s classic “Days of Heaven.” PTA, as we know by now, riffs on famous directors (Malick, Altman) the way Brian dePalma used to.
“IV” is set in Los Angeles, Malibu, maybe, although we don’t really see much of it. There’s a “Hurlyburly” feeling to the whole thing, of sex and drugs and maybe Joni Mitchell or the Mamas and the Papas somewhere in a Canyon. There’s slight reference to Charles Manson. But unlike a great movie of that ilk– Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo”– the center is always missing.
PTA captures and creates some outstanding moments from left field sources. Jeannie Berlin grabs your eye at the start, Broadway’s Jefferson Mays is a show stopper more than halfway in. By then, anything could be happening, so you just sit back and take in the spectacle. Robert Elswit has made the film look so delicious that you want to stay even though you know there will not be a satisfactory ending.
The break out star is Waterston, a sort of Barbara Hershey for 2014 ( and this saying a lot). She takes the newcomer crown from Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams. Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin are movie stars, hands down. Witherspoon and Wilson are fun cameos.
Warner Bros. is going to try and go the same route they did last year with Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which also starred Joaquin Phoenix. I’m not sure that this will work quite the same way. “Her,” for all its futuristic bent, was really a traditional love story at heart. “Vice” takes a far more circuitous route. But I admire them for trying. If nothing else, “Inherent Vice” will be a cult film for stoners.