Tag Archives: Paul Thomas Anderson

206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

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“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”–attributed to Thomas Pynchon in Jules Siegel’s Mar. 1977 Playboy profile

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , , , Martin Short

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.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
BACKGROUND:

  • 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.


Official trailer for Inherent Vice

COMMENTS: Confusion descends upon the viewer early on in Continue reading 206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

LIST CANDIDATE: INHERENT VICE (2014)

Inherent Vice has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Read the Certified Weird entry here.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , Katherine Waterston, , Martin Short

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.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
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 ‘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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an aggressively weird movie, which you should take not as a warning but as a compliment and an invitation to see it, to let its stoner vibes wash all over you.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)

Reader recommendation by “Brad”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, , Luis Guzman

PLOT: Business owner Barry Egan (Sandler) deals with anger issues, seven abusive sisters, a sex phone con artist, and the appearance of a strange harmonium all while falling in love with a mysterious, yet sympathetic woman (Watson).

Still from Punch-drunk Love (2002)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With its lead’s compulsive abrupt violent behavior, an uneasy sense of loneliness, abstract color schemes by Jeremy Blake, and a wonderfully weird soundtrack by Jon Brion, this film is highly off-kilter for a romantic comedy.

COMMENTS: Paul Thomas Anderson followed up his dramatic masterpiece Magnolia with this small-scale arthouse comedy/drama/character study. Adam Sandler was chosen for the role of troubled lead Barry Egan. Unlike the typical crude humor Sandler is known for, here he uses a restrained, subtle performance to capture Egan’s tantrums, loneliness, and troubled life. Egan is a unhappy business owner balancing work and his seven abusive sisters who taunt him about being gay and continuously call him at work. Barry comes across a harmonium that was sat on the side of the road by a mysterious van following an out of nowhere car crash (foreshadowing a later car crash with Sandler and Watson). Later, we explore Barry’s loneliness and his paranoia when he calls a sex phone operator who later begins to con Barry out of money, threatening and later sending out a group of brothers hired as hitmen to rough Egan up. This blackmail operation is ran by the “Mattress Man” (Philip Seymour Hofffman, in a hilarious role). Egan ends up meeting a mysterious, beautiful young woman, Lena (Watson) through his sister, the same woman earlier in the film he briefly talked to about leaving her car. He begins to fall in love over the course of the film attending a date at a restaurant that ends with them kicked out due to his uncontrollable temper. He then follows her to Hawaii, using frequent flyer miles earned from buying pudding. The hitmen are later defeated after a car crash wounds Lena, who is hospitalized. Barry confront the Mattress Man in a hilarious final showdown. The film ends with Barry running back to Lena, confessing all his problems and promising to never leave  again. Too weird to be a mainstream rom-com, too unpredictable and arthouse to please everyone, Paul Thomas Anderson retains his courage for experimenting with film and pulls an actual performance from Sandler. This is a MUST EXPERIENCE for any film fan looking to step outside the usual boundaries set by mainstream romantic comedy/dramas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weirdly sweet little love story… Anderson also throws in dark complications, including a sinister phone-sex scam, Barry’s strangely surreal sisters, his pudding-purchasing obsession and some very odd pillow talk.”–Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE MASTER (2012)

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DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson

FEATURING: , Philip Seymour Hoffman

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).

Still from The Master (2012)
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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strange and complicated story it has to tell exists beyond the reach of doubt or verification. The cumulative artifice on display is beautiful — camera movements that elicit an involuntary gasp, passages in Jonny Greenwood’s score that raise the hair on the back of your neck, feats of acting that defy comprehension — but all of it has been marshaled in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief. “–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)