It is always interesting to read reviews from general film critics when it comes to P.T. Anderson films. While the director is one of the best working today, he is often polarizing for audiences and his movies are always deeper than a mainstream film fan or critic might see. An example is There will be Blood, a horror movie that owes as much to Dracula as anything else.
Anderson’s newest movie is Inherent Vice, a movie that has confused its fair share of critics based on the reviews that have surfaced so far. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a 57-percent fresh rating from fans, 70 percent from critics and 69 percent from top critics. A number of critics count off for the film’s lack of focus and plot strands that go nowhere. At the end of the day, that is the exact point.
Inherent Vice is based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, a novelist whose books have been called un-filmable and this is the exact reason. Pynchon is not someone who creates stories that travels a straight line from point A to point B, hitting all the points that Syd Field preaches about in his studies of screenwriting. Instead, he takes characters and makes them so interesting that they are what keeps you entertained as you read his books. The plot is just what happens while we follow our characters through their lives.
That is also the exact format that P.T. Anderson chooses to take for Inherent Vice. The story is about a stoner private detective named Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is at home relaxing when his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up and asks for his help. She is worried, because the rich land developer she has been dating (Eric Roberts’ Michael Z. Wolfmann) has disappeared and she is afraid that he has been forcibly placed in a mental asylum by his wife, who is trying to take all his money.
This is the exact same sort of plot that starts movies like Chinatown and The Big Sleep, and this is, at its heart, a classic Film Noir. Like those earlier movies, the mystery that is introduced at the start is not really what the story is about. This is about the detective trying to figure out the mystery while watching as things seem to sink deeper and deeper into conspiracies and cover-ups.
The story of Inherent Vice is that Pynchon was never interested in seeing any of his novels up on the big screen. He rejected every offer for his works. P.T. Anderson has wanted to adapt Pynchon for years, but every time he set out to work on something, he could never make it work because Pynchon is un-filmable. However, Anderson cracked Inherent Vice and approached Pynchon at a party. He pitched his movie as The Rockford Files on the big screen and Pynchon was sold.
See, The Rockford Files was a classic television show starring James Garner as a private detective who spends as much time getting beat up as he does solving crimes. That is what happens in Anderson’s movie, as Doc is beaten up by thugs, drug dealers, cops and more, all while just trying to survive as he tries to figure out what happened to Shasta, who disappeared shortly after hiring him.
The plotting device that Anderson chose was brilliant as well. He took a character from the novel that was just a minor role in the book and made her the narrator. That was Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), a guru who was friends with both Doc and Shasta while they were dating and remains close with Doc. Her dialogue is lifted almost word-for-word from the novel and it is perfect in the Film Noir aspects of the movie. Honestly, the way Newsom delivers the dialogue makes the viewer believe they are in a detective novel.
There is also the fact that, upon repeat viewings of the movie, you might come to the conclusion that Sortilege isn’t even a real character and is just a figment of Doc’s imagination and possibly his conscious.
While trying to figure out what happened to Shasta and Wolfmann, Doc has to deal with a police department who hates him and prefers to beat him up rather than help him solve crimes. At the head of this abuse of power is Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a cop with a huge attitude problem that hates Doc and all other “hippies” and drug users. However, by the end of the movie, Bigfoot is the only character in the film that actually grows and develops before our eyes. He is the tragic figure of the story.
This is a movie that has Doc as the central character, and the best way to enjoy the movie is to follow him from incident to incident. Yeah, there are parts of the plot that meander, and others that just disappear completely. There are also moments that seem to be completely out of place, but most of these moments are to create either humorous incidents (the Golden Fang) or to put Doc in uncomfortable situations. That is where this movie is an unmitigated success, as we follow Doc through the story and just enjoy the moments.
If you go into the movie looking for a straight forward Hollywood plot, you will leave disappointed. If you go into the movie looking for a film that will sweep you away into another world, one that you can enjoy for what it is and not worry about anything else, Inherent Vice is that movie. P.T. Anderson has another masterpiece in his filmography.
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