PLOT: It’s 1970, and P.I. “Doc” Sportello has his evening interrupted by his ex-girlfriend, concerned about a plot on the part of her new lover’s wife (and the wife’s lover) to institutionalize him. Doc’s investigation has barely begun before he stumbles across, and is stumbled upon, by a coterie of oddballs, all with their own problems. Skinhead bikers, the LAPD, a dentist tax-avoidance syndicate, and an ominous smuggling ring known as the Golden Fang all get linked together as Doc hazily maneuvers through some very far-out pathways indeed.
The notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published “Inherent Vice,” his seventh novel, in 2009. Although they sell well and have cult followings, no Pynchon novel had previously been adapted for the screen, mainly because the author’s plots are too complex and confusing to fit the film format. Anderson had considered adapting “V” or “Mason & Dixon,” but found both impossible to translate into a coherent screenplay.
According to Josh Brolin, Pynchon appeared somewhere in the film in a cameo, although this is difficult to confirm as the last known photograph of the author was clandestinely snapped in the early 1990s.
Though filled with A-list actors and nominated for two Academy Awards, Inherent Vice only recouped $11 million worldwide of its $20 million budget.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: While being given a ride from LAPD headquarters, Doc Sportello notices the… mmm, thoroughness with which Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen attends to his frozen banana. The scene goes on for a while — and is odd in and of itself — but also gives a suggestion of the peculiar psychological relationship between the two.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Telephone paranoia; playboy dentist; moto panikako!
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Its overexposed colors and garish hippie costumes immediately summon the film’s era, creating an image somehow both sharp and blurred. Similarly, the movie travels along a bumpy, diversion-filled path toward an unexpectedly tidy conclusion. The combination of comedy and paranoia works well — this movie will leave you chuckling and, afterwards, slightly worried the next time your phone rings.
PLOT: In 1970 Los Angeles, private investigator and marijuana enthusiast “Doc” Sportello investigates several converging cases while dodging a hippie-hating police detective out to get him.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Paul Thomas Anderson’s work has flitted around the edges of the bizarre, beginning with the baffling ending to Magnolia, through the reader-recommended oddity Punch-Drunk Love and the existential meanderings of The Master. With this stoned adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s studiously esoteric novel, Anderson may finally have passed over to the weird side for good.
COMMENTS: I don’t think it’s a mistake that’s it’s easy to misread the title Inherent Vice as Incoherent Voice. This smoky noir in which everything connects, but nothing does, is like a comic version of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” (the novel, not the movie); but instead of an expatriate junkie’s 1950s nightmare, it’s an American pothead’s 1960s reality of a world of alarming signifiers (Vietnam, the Manson family, Nixon rallies) that float past, occasionally colliding and combining like the hot wax spheres in a lava lamp. The plot is doled out in fits and starts, as if Doc is suffering from blackouts. He probably as; at one point he writes “not hallucinating” in his detective’s notebook as an act of self-reassurance. Characters like Reese Witherspoon’s hot-to-trot assistant D.A. or Benicio Del Toro‘s maritime lawyer plop in to drop bits of exposition without much explanation of who they are, where they came from or why they care. Like a slightly more coherent Branded to Kill, deconstructing American detectives instead of Japanese yakuza, Inherent Vice assembles its pseudo-story out of warped genre tropes: hard-bitten detectives who inhale bong hits instead of slamming shots of bourbon; femme fatales who manipulate saps into giving them a good spanking.
Better to think of Inherent Vice not as a plotted movie, but as a movie composed of free-associated plot elements. There’s a decadent real-estate magnate with a private sex cult, Aryan biker gangs, hippie-hating flattoped cops, a disappearing surf-sax player, an insane asylum that doubles as a private prison, and a vertically integrated Taiwanese heroin consortium. For added oddness, there’s conspicuous product placement for nonexistent brands, ridiculous fang-shaped skyscrapers that pop up in formerly empty lots, and a manic Martin Short as a drug-snorting, cradle-robbing dentist. There is even resolution, of a sort: Doc discovers all of the missing persons before the end credits roll. But you may be mystified as to how he did it.
Inherent Vice is the new masterpiece of hippie noir. It rides that fine line between rationality and irrationality, heading towards a hazy neverland where universal paranoia holds sway. Not only does it ride that line, it eventually snorts it up.
PLOT: Still wounded by his divorce, professional letter writer Theodore Twombly retreats from human relationships into a lonely life of videogames, gossip websites, and anonymous phone sex. However, his world changes after he upgrades to “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” a sentient program named Samantha that he initially treats with suspicion but soon accepts as a confidant, then a lover. When Twombly and Samantha becomes more intimate, though, her insatiable curiosity about the world strains their bond and threatens to recreate the heartbreak that Twombly experienced once before.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Twombly and Samantha’s pairing is weird, Jonze’s story glosses over the odder aspects of the couple to concentrate on the universal qualities of the affair. The early introduction of phone sex normalizes the sensuous but purely vocal encounter between man and program that begins their romance, and the casual acceptance of their relationship by others further overlooks uncomfortable questions that another film might dwell upon. Instead, Jonze uses the scenario to fancifully illustrate the needs, passions, and pains felt by anyone who falls in love, even a woman who exists within a digital cloud.
COMMENTS: One of Her’s most endearing moments occurs after Twombly and Samantha’s first sexual encounter, when he awkwardly tells his OS that he isn’t interested in a serious relationship. It’s strange to see a morning after scene play out between a man and his computer, and yet that strangeness is absent from the dialogue as Johannson responds with the same charming annoyance and veiled attraction she’d provide in any romantic comedy. On the surface Samantha is defined by her nonphysical nature, but the warmth of Johannson’s performance shows the character’s emotions are not constrained by the lack of a body, that she feels with as much range and depth as any person. Rather than asking if computer programs could ever feel love, as other sci-fi films have, love is not merely possible but inevitable for Samantha. In Her, love is a fundamental part of intelligent life, and so anyone worthy of being called alive, whether human or artificial, naturally must be able to love.
At the same time, Her envisions an emotionally barren future where media technology isolates people from each other, eroding the personal connections they need to thrive. Twombly embodies that isolation as he shuffles from work to home with his eyes glued to one high-tech device or another, engaging others in only the most superficial ways. However, Phoenix’s awkward, self-enclosing performance also suggests someone not just glued to technology but also afraid of emotions, even as his sensitive letters hint at a deeply empathetic soul. Like Samantha, Twombly has a natural ability to love, but unlike his newborn OS he is burdened by past romantic failures and the fear of seeing them repeated, which discourages him from pursuing love at all. That fear pushes Twombly into a stupefying routine of media consumption that keeps other people, and the emotional risks attached to them, safely at bay. Whereas Samantha’s urge to love gives her life, Twombly’s reluctance to love leads him to numbly, thoughtlessly live out his days in front of machines, depriving him of a real life.
Given Twombly’s attachment to machines, it’s fitting that the person who finally reaches him is herself part of a machine. The chemistry between the characters is palpable despite Samantha’s invisibility, not solely because of Johannson’s strong voice work but also because of Phoenix’s total commitment to the conceit. In one scene Twombly shuts his eyes and lets Samantha guide him through a busy carnival, and as he follows her voice he moves so eagerly and joyfully that she could be leading him by the hand. Conversely, when Samantha disappears at various points in the film, Twombly’s solitude exceeds that of a man simply standing by himself. In Phoenix’s face we see a wordless grief through which Samantha’s absence is apparent, and through that sense of absence the invisible character takes shape.
Twombly is shaped by the relationship too as he ends his solitude and begins to let other people connect with him again. By the end, Twombly has realized that the ability to form those connections is itself a marvelous thing, regardless of whether or not they end in heartbreak. Samantha herself is not a perfect mate and Twombly’s relationship with her never seems sustainable, but the film treasures their bond no matter how absurd and fleeting it may be. In a world where people can rely on technology to smooth out the complications in their lives, Her argues that something as complicated and ephemeral as love has a place in our lives too, that love is in fact still what makes life worth living.
PLOT: Failing to fit into society after returning from World War II, a libidinous alcoholic sailor falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader (modeled on Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard).
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only a single hallucination scene and some impressionistic storytelling that flirts with the oneiric gives us the slightest opening to even discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest bit of Oscar bait as a weird film. And yet, even though we’re as pickled in weirdness as The Master‘s sloshed sailor Freddie is in solvent-boosted booze, we’re conscious of how ridiculously strange this confounding film appears to average audiences. From geriatric walkouts to bloggers complaining the film is “weird for the sake of being weird” to the infallibly wrong Rex Reed declaring it “juvenile and superficial trash” in a class with Mulholland Drive and Being John Malkovich, The Master may be worthy of weirdophiles notice more because it’s annoying the right people than because of its inherent oddness.
COMMENTS: The Master isn’t an exposé of the origins of Scientology; that would be a mere barrel-fishing expedition. The tenets propounded by Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master (played with a carefully portioned-out charisma by Philip Seymour Hoffman) are an intellectual MacGuffin. Dramatically, the film centers around the bond between the uncomfortably avuncular Dodd and lost soul Freddie—the co-dependent relationship between Master and cultist, in which the need to be believed in is as desperate as the need to believe. Thematically, the movie is about man’s quixotic need to find meaning and purpose in existence, about a human emptiness that is filled by ritual and community, not rational deliberation. Anderson assumes the audience will understand The Cause’s teachings are hokum, and in case we don’t get it, a character explains, “You know he’s making it up as he goes along, right?” By taking the absurdity of the cult’s dogma as a given, Anderson shifts the emphasis from an examination of the truth or falsity of particular doctrines to the more provocative question of whether even blatantly ridiculous mumbo-jumbo can nonetheless be morally uplifting—and whether such salvation is worth the price. Joaquin Phoenix knows exactly what Anderson needs from the role, and his tormented, twitchy performance as a drunken lecher trapped in his own animalistic nature will be remembered come awards time. It’s a daring portrayal, because with his dimwitted stares, heed-banging tantrums and exaggerated agonies, Phoenix risks looking hammy and ridiculous. Freddie, who spikes his drinks with paint thinner because vodka has lost its kick, makes love to a sand castle in the shape of a woman, and masturbates into the ocean, is the most moving kind of character: one who’s repulsive, both physically and spiritually, but with whom we sympathize because his suffering and loneliness strikes a universal chord. He also stands as a challenge, or even a reproach, to Dodd’s faith—which this Master shares with conventional religions—that “man is not an animal.” Hoffman’s controlled performance, the super-ego to Phoenix’ id, is a delight in its own right, although his role mainly serves to highlight Freddie’s mania. Dodd is no simple charlatan, but a surprisingly congenial and even affectionate egotist who, as depicted here, sincerely believes his chicanery will better mankind. “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master,” he tells Freddie in the film’s key scene, “be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” That “any master” is a brilliant addendum, an unexpectedly selfless expression of love from Dodd (the equivalent of “even if you don’t get help from me, get help from someone”) and another indicator that the movie’s concerns go deeper than the peculiar quirks of the Cause. Ultimately, The Master‘s dogma is humanistic, tragic and romantic: the faith that a depraved freedom is preferable to a sick salvation.
The Master was shot in 65mm film, a lush but expensive format that today is typically only used for IMAX films. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of theaters around that are still have 70mm projectors capable of projecting the film in the way it was meant to be seen.