This drug-addled shaggy dog story is already divisiveMovie Review, Section 4A Thursday, January 8th, 2015
I’m not a fan of the phrasing “there are two kinds of people: the kind of people who like X and the kind of people who hate X.” It’s hackneyed, and not always true. Some people just don’t care about X. I guess the point is that X is something people have strong feelings about, and no one says “meh” about X. And X is usually something very specific, like improvisational jazz, sea urchin roe, or reality TV about rich housewives. Paul Thomas Anderson movies tend to fit in with these things. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t care about his films if they’ve seen them. They might loathe them and they might love them. No one shrugs off Magnolia or The Master. I’m in the camp of people that treats a new Anderson movie like a cosmic event; he’s my favorite living filmmaker. And his latest film, a drug-addled shaggy dog story based on a Thomas Pynchon novel, is already divisive. People hate it, people love it, and I’m one of the latter people. I wanted to move into the film and set up house.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator who works out of a doctor’s office near the beach in 1970s Los Angeles. He’s disheveled, confused, bumbling and occasionally philosophical. One day, his ex-lover, an ethereal blonde named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, serving hippie realness), appears out of nowhere and asks for him to help her escape a kidnapping and ransom scheme she’s entangled herself in with her new, married, real estate mogul boyfriend (Eric Roberts). As Doc investigates, he stumbles upon dead-eyed cultists, mob thugs, sex-fiend dentists, corrupt police and various other 1970s California archetypes. He’s occasionally assisted by fame-obsessed hardboiled cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), no-nonsense assistant district attorney Betty Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) and squeaky-voiced masseuse Jade (Hong Chau).
The mystery is a tangled curlicue of nonsense, but because it’s based on a Pynchon novel, it’s not supposed to make much sense, or not in a typical noir fashion anyway. If you expect the film to work that way, with a linear narrative of clues and confrontations leading to the capturing of a bad guy, you’ll be pretty irritated by the end. The film is more about the chaos, corruption, narcissism, ironies and aesthetics of Los Angeles in the 1970s; it’s not really about whether Shasta Fay is involved in a kidnapping or if Bigfoot is an ass or a hero. That the plot is more or less irrelevant to the film is probably considered a major flaw in the minds of a lot of viewers (and reviewers), but I was enrapt by the impeccable art direction, the hazy and saturated cinematography, and bizarre singular scenes, from a coke-fueled visit to a mysterious dental office to a creepily loud meal at a Chinese diner with Bigfoot. Sometimes Anderson is channeling Altman, or Kubrick, or even Lynch, but even with those influences, Inherent Vice is an Anderson film, working wonderfully alongside Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
Phoenix, as usual, uses his idiosyncratic method acting to great effect. He’s like an incredibly stoned, less competent Columbo. He’s sexier in this than in most films he’s done, so it makes sense so many women want Doc, despite his klutzy cluelessness. Brolin leaves a much bigger impression as a cop who feels the need to portray a much tougher cop, something like Eliot Ness with the voice of a fog horn. He’s the funniest thing about a very funny movie, and it’s a shame when he’s not on screen. But the appearances of Chau’s witty Jade and Witherspoon’s Kimball, as well as cameos from Martin Short and Maya Rudolph, help propel the film through the strange streets of Los Angeles.
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