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'Inherent Vice' and the Complicated Protagonists of Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson is not afraid to get weird. His latest effort happens to get weird in the sense that it seems to deliver a contact high as you're watching it.

by Chris McEwen
Nov 26 2014, 6:42pm

"I never remember plots in movies. I remember how they make me feel, and I remember emotions, and I remember visual things that I've seen—but my brain can never connect the dots of how things go together." —Paul Thomas Anderson

**

You won't really know what happens in Inherent Vice after seeing it just once.

I don't say this to condescend, or to imply that the stoner-comedy-mystery is an impenetrable mindfuck in the vein of David Lynch's strangest works. But that being said, this is a new release from one of our brightest, boldest, and ballsiest directors—a filmmaker who recently concluded his epic exegesis of the founding of Scientology by having Philip Seymour Hoffman croon an unnervingly icy rendition of "On a Slow Boat to China" as a form of pseudo-seduction.

Paul Thomas Anderson is not afraid to get weird. His latest effort happens to get weird in the sense that it seems to deliver a contact high as you're watching it. An all-encompassing conspiracy is developing on screen that you can't make heads or tails of, but the paranoia still lingers. The film is almost impossible to follow from a plot perspective on first viewing, in the same way that The Maltese Falcon is impossible to follow when you're watching it high at 2 AM on TCM. But plot doesn't matter in Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, is the most Paul Thomas Anderson-y movie that Paul Thomas Anderson has made yet, and the culmination of a four-movie journey that started with Adam Sandler.

After wowing the film world with the Scorsese-esque manic ensemble bravado of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson started making genre films on his own terms. The first of these art-house experimentations, Punch-Drunk Love, is a woozily romantic fever dream that doubles as an Adam Sandler comedy, in that it feels like it was made by aliens fascinated by the enduring appeal of Sandler's rage-addled man-child persona. Punch-Drunk Love is brilliant in that it has Sandler playing a character similar to those that he's known for in his Happy Madison productions, even though the film views his trademark sophomoric outbursts and suppressed self-loathing with a probing sobriety. Could it be that the poor guy hammering the glass door at a family party is what's really been lurking inside Mr. Deeds this whole time? As ​Roger Ebert noted in his review, "[Sandler's] outbursts here help to explain the curiously violent passages... It's as if Sandler is Hannibal Lecter in a Jerry Lewis body."

Anderson followed up that film with a self-described take on Count Dracula—the epic pseudo-Western There Will Be Blood, which finds a modern heir to Bram Stoker's ghoul in the form of a psychotically motivated oilman named Daniel Plainview. In dissecting his intent, Anderson told American Cinematographer magazine, "I just had it in my head, underneath it all, that we were making a horror film." By the time we see Plainview, bloodied bowling pin in hand, lurched over the limp body of his fiercest competition during the film's darkly hilarious finale, Anderson's explanation becomes increasingly understandable.

And then there's The Master: Anderson's war film, both literally, in keeping with its protagonist's history in World War II, and ideologically. For all of the intensity of The Master, this is a movie that begins its most fiery sequence (where Lancaster Dodd "processes" Freddie Quell) with a terrific fart joke. This sense of controlled tonal whiplash—the freewheeling ability to switch between genres in a single scene, or even a single shot—is the defining alchemy of all of Anderson's movies, even predating his recent run of art films. Think back to the scene in Boogie Nights when Scotty J. shoves his tongue down Dirk Diggler's throat, then slides back into his ridiculous new sports car a blubbery mess, wailing, "I'm a fuckin' idiot" over and over again. It even goes back to the raining frogs at the end of Magnolia, a sequence that ping-pongs the film between Biblical solemnity, ecological terror, and surrealist comedy for a few ecstatic minutes.

Inherent Vice is a whole movie that operates on this wavelength. It's as much of a deconstruction of Raymond Chandler as it is an old-fashioned gags-and-stunts picture, in the vein of the madcap spoof movies of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (the architects of Police Squad, Airplane, and Top Secret). It's a whacked-out farce that features Martin Short as a coke-addled corrupt dentist, while also doubling as a stripped-down look at the loneliness that motivates the entire genre of film noir, that sense of a culture gasping its dying breaths.

Just look at Anderson's hero. As Doc Sportello, a perma-blazed detective embarking on an aimless odyssey across the beaches and deserts of Southern California, Joaquin Phoenix ambles along like Homer Simpson, contorts his face like Donald Duck, and in one exquisite tumble (inside a poorly concealed massage parlor turned brothel), pratfalls like John Belushi. If nothing else, Inherent Vice proves that Joaquin Phoenix is not merely an astonishingly gifted dramatic performer but also a physical comedian on par with Jim Carrey and Chris Farley. It's a marvel of a performance, and one that is so fundamentally reactive that it's destined to be overlooked during the year-end awards cycle.

But Phoenix's performance is especially marvelous because he is that bridge between Anderson's dual muses here. He can nail the comedy, the Leslie Nielsen attitude, the coolness that comes from not caring how cool you look when you're tumbling over yourself. Yet he can also hint at the deep, abiding sense of heartbreak and pain that comes with noir heroism, and do so with just a simple facial expression that pivots the film from comedy to tragedy. He's got the shimmy of Bluto and the soul of Philip Marlowe.

Under the surface of Punch-Drunk Love's Barry Egan, Anderson found the anguished heart of a lonesome romantic, as the film's initial sobriety slipped into a sort of hallucinatory glee in its final half, thanks in no small part to the film's lush anamorphic cinematography and swooning Jon Brion score. Similarly, in Sportello, Anderson finds a different kind of compromised romantic—one with a love for both his flighty on-and-off lady friend (a revelatory Katherine Waterston) and his city, despite the knowledge that neither relationship is built to last.

It's the core of any good film noir story—the fatalistic crusader who perseveres with the good fight despite his better judgment. Like how you might remember Dracula, if you looked past the narrative particulars, as the story of an unstoppable megalomaniac who can't help himself from sucking the life force of everything around him. Or how Billy Madison plays back in your head, when you think about it a few days later, as the story of a violent victim of arrested development who just wants to be loved. For Paul Thomas Anderson, the plot is just window dressing—the conduit for whatever emotional clashes he finds lurking inside his given genre obsession. And in the case of Inherent Vice, he'll make you feel so high that you have no choice but to give yourself over.