When most choices at the theater seem to be part of the Hobbit-Avenger industrial complex, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice should be a punch of prestige nostalgia for fans of serious American cinema. There is a sense of trepidation, however, when approaching the film. At this point in his career, Anderson has moved from indie darling to respected auteur, but the humor that characterized his early work has been in short supply.
After making a well-reviewed but little seen debut with Hard Eight, Anderson shot to prominence with Boogie Nights, a film that found the perfect use for a burgeoning Mark Wahlberg and let Burt Reynolds take a victory lap before appearing in The Dukes of Hazzard. The film’s mix of pathos, Schadenfreude, and hilarity made it a mainstream success, and both audiences and critics couldn’t wait to see what Anderson would do next. He followed up with Magnolia, an ambitious film that doesn’t totally work, but still provides meaty roles for the director’s group of repertory players and a revelatory Tom Cruise. Anderson stuck to this formula on a smaller scale with Punch Drunk Love, forcing an entirely new audience to acknowledge Adam Sandler and giving the actor the dragon of positive recognition that he has chased through a series of unfortunate “legitimate” roles. Though varied in scope and execution, the through line for each of these films was that they were idiosyncratic, compelling, and, even with Magnolia’s heavy themes, a pretty fun time at the movies.
Anderson took some time off and returned to take viewers on a two-picture descent into the blackest night of the human soul. There Will Be Blood and The Master still have the bravura acting moments, but the plots are relentlessly grim- Boogie Nights went to some dark places, but there was nothing like Daniel Day Lewis decimating Paul Dano. It’s just hard to watch. The Master plods from scene to increasingly disturbing scene between Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, with little respite and less narrative structure. The craft in front of and behind the camera remains unassailable, and Anderson was clearly making the movies he wanted to make, but his films had become, in their darkness, something to be admired rather than enjoyed.
It is, then, precisely the right time for Anderson to become acquainted with Thomas Pynchon, whose shaggy detective novel Inherent Vice steers Anderson away from moral corruption and back towards fondly remembering a hippy-dippy California that no longer exists. Pynchon’s loopy characterization and acid wit also inject warmth and humor that have been missing from Anderson’s recent work. It is useless to try and describe Inherent Vice as anything other than a triumphant and fortuitous junction of two artists. Pynchon has thrown Anderson a lifeline, but the director has given sumptuous life to the author’s creations. Gordita Beach teems with scuzzy life as California slouches out of the Manson panic and into waiting arms of Ronald Reagan and the acolytes of suburban sprawl. Each shot in the film is strikingly detailed and perfectly composed.
More important than the setting Anderson creates are the characters he puts in it. Joaquin Phoenix as the gently dope addled P.I. Doc Sportello and Josh Brolin, playing a variation on the image conscious cops of L.A. Confidential, seamlessly inhabit their characters and deliver the performances expected in the center of an Anderson film. The supporting cast is just as strong; it is worth the constant pleasant surprises to go in to the theater knowing as little as possible about the cast. In the middle of this group of actors, Katherine Waterston does walks away with the film. Her character is the catalyst and MacGuffin for most of the story, and in one deeply affecting scene becomes the soul not only of Inherent Vice, but Pynchon and Anderson.
Both men know that the freaks lost and the suits won.
California isn’t a place for the Doc Sportellos of the world, and that’s a sad thing. But thankfully, Anderson and Pynchon and Inherent Vice realize that there are still laughs to be had while sailing on this melancholy sea of life.