30 for 30: Inherent Vice

Richard Petro

twitter @ThePetroProject

October 05th, 2019

"Don't worry, thinking comes later."

     Paul Thomas Anderson may be my favourite director in terms of ones that began their body of work in the 90's. Every new projects, or even new from an upcoming project, fills me with joy and excitement. It's not simply the fact that he's been consistently great, but where PTA's real shine comes from is his ability to tackle a variety of subjects, time periods, and the like perfectly. with his films feeling very different from each other yet still distinctly his.
     So with such a great line-up of films, it was difficult to choose which one edged out the others for a mention. My thoughts came down to two, the obvious topic of the piece and There Will Be Blood. There Will Be Blood has been written about quite a bit, and ranks high in terms of my favourites, a masterpiece made by someone who is always on top of his game being, well, at the highest top of his game he could be.

     Inherent Vice, based off of the Thomas Pynchon novel about a stoner investigator in 1970 that gets entangled in a series of mysterious that may or may not be connected, was released to generally decent reviews that were more mixed than usual for Anderson; many called it one of the best films of 2014, while many stated that it was incredibly well-made and acted, etc, but was a frustrating, confusing web, especially for those that like things a bit more straightforward. Luckily, though, even the five years that has passed with it has been kind to the movie, as it's easily becoming a cult film waiting to have a mass audience.

     Inherent Vice is, as stated by many, indeed a challenging watch, but it's one that is rewarding if watched under the right circumstance, one that undoubtedly comes more from a second rewatch than the initial one. It's a mystery, so you're waiting for the pieces to all fall into place and the end to be wrapped up in a way that has you nodding along with it. Inherent Vice isn't that kind of work (both the film or book). It's one that works best in the mind frame of the main character, sitting back and going along for the ride, allowing things to just generally happen as they are going to (whether or not you're high yourself probably won't effect the outcome). In many ways, it's reminiscent to some films by the Coen's, the ending not providing any true conclusion for you so much as a need to look back at everything that's happened and go "huh."
     The almost endless stream of characters coming and going, plot points being brought up and dropped until you kind of forget because you're caught up in something else until it's suddenly re-introduced, and the feeling of things folding over onto themselves with the threat of the bottom giving out makes it ends up making it one of the greatest adaptions ever made. Pynchon is famously anything but simple, and the film captures the essence of not just this particular novel but his works in general better than one can ever hope or have expected.

     Once stating that, as a fan of Pynchon, "if someone is going to f*** this up, I want to be the one that f***s it up", Anderson pretty much perfectly described the level of an uphill battle he would have making it, but he went all in and pulled it off wonderfully. This is a film that wouldn't necessarily work if even one element seemed out of place, but everything here works. The setting and period work is exquisite, capturing the look of the era and fully transporting you there while also bottling up the feeling of the time, generally revolving around mass paranoia. Of course, the film is also perfectly balanced with hilarity, being one of the funniest movies released in 2014 and one that I still quote quite often. Scenes and lines are instantly memorable, along with its massive cast of characters played by actors that are all doing some of their best work here, to the point that I can easily go through each supporting character and talk about what I loved most about them (but can't on account of time, seriously though, they are all magnificent).

     As much as I don't have time to cover every piece of acting and pieces I love, I do have to make particular mention for Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has always been a fantastic actor, constantly putting out great work after great work, but here, to me, he's created something that's special in many ways. I fully believe that his work as 'Doc' Sportello make Inherent Vice a must watch at least once for people who wish to do comedic acting. His timing and reads are brilliant, every sputter and stammer feels like it's been meticulously thought out and placed in his lines fully knowing where they would have the greatest effect. But it isn't just the basics of timing and line reads that makes him stand out here, and why I think his acting is a must watch here. That comes down to one simple word: reaction. Phoenix's reaction work is amongst some of the best I've probably seen, especially in modern times. I feel a lot of great jokes are generally ruined in comedy due to over-reactions, mostly because in many cases, individuals think an over the top reaction would elicit the easiest laughs from people. Here, Phoenix is understated. Understated may even be the wrong word: he's real. There are so many colourful characters here that throw things at Doc that stump him that the quiet cutbacks to Phoenix and his face draw some of the biggest laughs from me no matter how many times I've watched the movie.
     This understated, realistic portrayal of reaction is what makes the few times he does go big at it a level of startling hilarity that wouldn't work if the entirety of his reacions were big. His character is in utter confusion during the vast runtime of the film, a quiet look of disbelief constantly washed across his face and eyes, but when you get to something like, say, his character being shown a photo of something specific that we the audience don't see, and we get a sudden, full lunged scream, it's instantly so much funnier. He also has one of the best 'sip from a drink and cough/choke on your drink' I've probably ever seen.

     There's a lot to love and enjoy about Inherent Vice as long as you're open to sit back and let it take you on its ride without hesitation. Every element is beautifully handled, pulling together into a film that I hope keeps growing its audience as time goes on. It's intriguing, at times very sweet, and endlessly hilarious. It makes me wish there were more Pynchon books following the Sportello character for (what would likely be) the 5% chance we'd have of Anderson and Phoenix revisiting this world.