The world is constantly inundated with new music and culture to consume. And, for that, I am thankful. Not necessarily for the slew of terrible-to-mediocre films, but for those that rise above and captivate audiences, challenge people to think differently, and evoke emotion. Today, there are a few directors that generally deliver on creating a work that fulfills my aforementioned criteria. Some names you might recognize include Scorsese, David O. Russell, Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Tarantino, Fincher, Anderson (Wes), and – of course – Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA).
Paul Thomas Anderson’s works have been widely celebrated. Similar to an actor he has worked with in the past (Daniel Day-Lewis), Paul Thomas Anderson is rather particular about what films he chooses to make. Since 1996, PTA has created only seven feature-length films. Twice in his career there has been a five-year lapse of no contribution. Consequently, when the man is set to release a film, people respond. Critics set high expectations of PTA’s work – especially since the release of the brutal, invasive There Will Be Blood.
So, when Inherent Vice was scheduled for the end of 2014, people set their expectations. And, those expectations weren’t met. Some took the film for what it was, but others have declared it to be a failure. Alas, there has been much controversy about PTA’s latest work. To help you decide whether you should go see the film, I created a guide. Note: I answer all questions assuming the answer is “yes.”
Do you like Joaquin Phoenix?
Go see it. He’s in just about every second of it, and perfectly in character for every moment. You see Joaquin get high. You see Joaquin on a beach. You see Joaquin in a diner. You see Joaquin act rather similar to “The Dude.” You see Joaquin in a car – a Dodge Dart to be precise. You see Joaquin with an afro. You see Joaquin paranoid. Have I made my point? You see Joaquin. A lot.
Do you only like movies that are simple in their comedy?
This movie may not be for you. There are endless laughs to be had throughout Inherent Vice and many of them come in a conventional fashion, but most do not and require the viewer to dig a little deeper and pay closer attention, effectively requiring some effort for that guffaw.
Most of the comedy found in Inherent Vice is found in the mannerisms of Phoenix’s portrayal of Doc Sportello. Everything about Doc is rather ironic. He is a private investigator (who works out of a doctor’s office) who regularly — hyper-regularly might actually be more accurate — smokes weed and enjoys other psychedelics – but no junk for him. A result of his position, he must associate with law enforcement – aka those who despise him and the culture in which he lives. Much laughter can be found in the interaction between Doc and those he must utilize in order to fully crack a case.
Some moments promote hilarity because the juxtaposition of Doc’s actions and words. Take this moment into consideration: Doc is looking to wrap up a matter with some associates of his. While waiting for another party to arrive, he casually finishes off a joint and – while holding in the smoke – tells his associates, “Stay sharp.”
Overall, there are plenty of comedic moments that everyone would enjoy, but unless you are willing to dive a little deeper, you may miss some of the best ones.
Are you expecting this to be another There Will Be Blood?
Are you an idiot? How can you expect that again? But, I digress.
You may want to wait to see it until you can lower your expectations. There is a common trap for film viewers. Those who appreciate exceptional directing tend to believe that those artists are required to consistently climb the ladder of greatness, or that if they make something less stellar than their magnum opus, it’s a useless contribution. When logic and reason are used to evaluate that thought process, a glaring fallacy can be discovered. Merely because a film does not live up to the expectations or greatness of a previous work doesn’t make it worthless.
This is not Anderson’s best work. It’s probably not even in the top three of his best. It may be one of his worst. But with that said, reaching the caliber of the worst Anderson film is something that thousands of other directors can only dream of accomplishing. I think people hold out hope that PTA will produce some medium-shattering experience like There Will Be Blood and in many ways that is okay. We should always hope that the medium of moviemaking will be continually pushed forward, reaching places within the human experience that have not yet been explored. However, when this does not happen, do not lose hope and throw tomatoes. If the boundaries of filmmaking were pushed too regularly, would it hold as much significance? I’d guess not.
Inherent Vice is certainly no There Will Be Blood. It’s not even The Master and it’s no Magnolia or Boogie Nights either. But, it’s a unique and fun addition to his cadre of films. Do I think it is alarming that both of PTA’s films since There Will Be Blood weren’t as good? No! He’s still making quality films that tell stories and refuse to be confined to the standards set by the rest of Hollywood.
Are you a fan of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Inherent Vice?
Go see it. Surprisingly, PTA’s Inherent Vice is a relatively faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s work. The pendulous tone, oscillating between crime noir and psychedelic pitter-patter, was completely captured by Anderson. All the important plot points are included, and PTA even managed to deliver the story in the same hazy, half-realized manner. As has been the complaint of some critics, Inherent Vice relies on the source material of Pynchon much more than Paul Thomas Anderson.
Do you require a good amount of coherency in a film?
You should probably avoid this film. Additionally, you would find the novel a headache. However, I do not think the level of incoherency makes the film a failure, as I’ve seen critics and casual viewers alike protrude. Believe me, I get it. Failing to understand something often becomes frustrating and – consequently – a source for anger. However, that does not make the “something” in question dumb or useless. The novel and film are incoherent intentionally. One might ask why.
Consider the foundation of the story. Doc Sportello, a PI, tries to solve cases amidst an incessant haze of pot smoke. Imagine living that life. Your vice, and possibly first true love, is a permanent part of you – your personality. Quitting is not a consideration, but being productive in spite of it is an option. Because of his personality (the pot, because of the pot), he is prone to forget details about the cases he is working. With this in mind, now consider the lack of coherency. Isn’t the incoherency a method to further link the viewer with the life and times of the hippie culture of the early 1970s? Doesn’t this seemingly haphazardly pieced-together narrative actually serve to bolster the legitimacy and quality of the tale? I don’t know. Maybe.
Are you a diehard fan of Paul Thomas Anderson?
Go see it, but be prepared. Naturally, if you are a diehard fan, you were going to see it anyway. While Inherent Vice is unlike any other PTA film, a true fan would recognize that that is part of PTA’s greatness. Anderson does not let himself be constricted to a single genre of a film. Peruse his filmography and you will quickly realize that PTA can maximize the potential of a story through his brilliant writing skills and ability to create compelling shots that cause the viewer to believe they are in the moment with the characters on screen.
That being said, PTA fans might be disappointed because of the fact that was mentioned in a previous section. Inherent Vice relies heavily on the source material, limiting the creative contribution of the proven aptitude of the director/ writer. This is not the first film PTA has adapted from the page to the screen, but it is the first film he has made that so closely follows the source material. Many realize that There Will Be Blood was based on the work by Upton Sinclair, Oil!. However, Sinclair’s addition to the annals of literary history merely served as a loose guideline for Anderson; more of an inspiring origin for There Will Be Blood, rather than a set story that just needed to be adapted to the silver screen.
Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Currently he is working as a freelance writer for Sagamore Institute, a teacher of government at Wayne State University, and a Ph.D. student in Public Administration, Urban Politics, and Public Policy at Wayne State University.