A long, strange trip
Loves: Paul Thomas Anderson, Maya Rudolph
Likes: Joaquin Phoenix, Martin Short, Thomas Pynchon, detective stories
Dislikes: Stoner films, meandering movies
Enter Paul Thomas Anderson.
If anyone can handle a sprawling tale involving a large cast of characters, it's the man who gave us both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. At the same time, if that idea has some odd twists and turns, explores unusual relationships and sometimes is more about feel than story, perhaps the director of the criminally-underrated Punch-drunk Love is the guy to turn to. Have a story set in Los Angeles in the ‘70s? Well, you know who we're talking about. So the fact that Anderson wanted to take on Pynchon's late-career neo-noir novel Inherent Vice was a match made in celluloid heaven. The only question that needed to be answered was, could Pynchon be adapted to film?
The story is essentially a detective story, as stoner private investigator Doc (Joaquin Phoenix, reteaming with Anderson after The Master) tries to track down his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), among others; finding himself going deeper down the rabbit hole as he searches. Soon he's involved with white supremacists, cults, drug organizations and dentists, with no clear path to getting himself extradited from the mess he finds himself in. Is a detective story good if you don't really care if it's solved and if, in the end, you're not quite sure it was? That depends if you're one of those "the journey is half the fun" sort of people.
Of course, you could just call Inherent Vice a character study, rather than a detective story. You'd be completely right. There are plenty of characters to enjoy, as you watch them come in and go out of Doc's life, with Phoenix offering an incredibly terrific performance as the not-always-there star. Jumpy yet mellow, he's often funny, yet utterly believable. Josh Brolin is almost as good as Doc's cop foil, the high-strung Bigfoot, while a host of others are similarly terrific in smaller parts, be it Owen Wilson (playing completely to type), an enjoyable Reese Witherspoon, a familiar Benicio Del Toro and a wonderfully wacked-out Martin Short, who almost steals the movie, sharing a pair of wonderful scenes with Phoenix.
As good as the other performances are, one tops the rest, and she's not even visible for most of the film, and that's musician Joanna Newsom, who gives voice (and brief presence) to Sortilège. A secondary character in Pynchon's book, Sortilège takes over the role of narrator in Anderson's vision, and it's a divine decision on his part, as her vocals create just the perfect tone for the film, a southern California chill infused with a bit of mysticism a bit of cynicism and a bit of love. It would be hard to imagine this film without her.
Newsom's role is just one example of the smart changes the writer/director made in transmogrifying the source material. Loyal readers may miss some of the moments that were excised, but the feel and the characters live on, though some who are unfamiliar with this trippy place where people named Japonica and Shasta snort and smoke and screw their way through life, may find the pace a bit languid and the plot a bit...lacking. But the film is consistently gorgeous and the characters unusual and enthralling, making for an entertaining good time, whether it's the first time you've met Doc, or your longtime friends.
You're going to need some help from the subtitles, but that's no fault of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. That's just thanks to the (intentional) delivery of some performers, particularly the stoned Doc. The audio is gorgeously layered, with dialogue that's well-suited to the moment, solid surround presence (with great atmospheric effects, crisp positioning and excellent dynamic mixing) and low-end effects that are universally effective. Of course, when you've got Anderson working in the ‘70s, music is going to be a major part of the party, and between the score by Jonny Greenwood and the delightfully eclectic soundtrack, it would be hard for this disc to sound bad. And it certainly doesn't.
The fourth (and longest) one, "Everything in This Dream" (5:49), is more interesting, as it offers material that wasn't in the film, though it's not exactly clear what it is or where it came from. Considering the film's trippy nature, it could be a montage of clips from several sections or could be an alternate ending. Take it as you will.
Also included in the package is an Ultraviolet code.
The Bottom Line