2014 saw a slew of paint-by-number character dramas. You toss the standard axioms into a hat - poignancy, romance, overcoming extreme adversity - shake and dump. The result: The Theory of Everything, Selma, The Imitation Game.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s trippy and curious Inherent Vice is a mysterious neo-noir that breaks from conventional structure at every turn. Private Dick Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is seduced by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), into investigating an evil plot hatched by the wife of her new billionaire boyfriend, which leads him to discover a group of drug smugglers known as the Golden Fang and an FBI hitman called Prussia. At least I think that’s what happens.
Many viewers will be put off by the film’s lack of complete coherence, but the details of the narrative aren’t overly important. It doesn’t matter if you’re left scratching your head at the end. What matters is the journey. Its subversive style, batty characters and stoner humor combine to create a dizzying experience - not unlike the feeling of being high. BTW, the film is thankfully void of one of those overly-stylized drug-induced fantasy sequences. The characters in the film are every bit as lost as the audience. Doc utilizes a notebook when questioning someone, but his notes are limited to one or two nonsensical words. Shasta is asked at one point what inherent vice means. She responds that she has no idea.
Phoenix is amazing. He's on another level. He bears the facial expression of a man out of place in the world, his mutton chops and paisley patters as out of style as his pre-Charles Manson ideals. Anderson shoots him in long takes, requiring his character to run the gamut of human emotionality in short stretches of time. His co-stars nearly match him stride for stride.
Robert Elswit’s camera casts an odd spell over the audience, its moody blue and red hues suggesting something otherworldly lurking behind the foggy streets of Southern California. His compositions take the viewer away to another time when hardboiled movie detectives spoke to a cynical public.
All seven of Anderson’s features toy with film grammar in one way or another, but none of them compare to the craziness of Inherent Vice. It is, perhaps, his masterstroke.