Inherent Vice is not a perfect movie, it is by equal turns frustrating, incoherent and suffused with the male gaze. But it is an ambitious movie, and a clever movie, and the risks it takes are to be commended. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort is a new personal favourite of mine, and a strong contender for the best movie I’ve seen this year. And in terms of the best movie of 2015, to beat the likes of Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, a movie in which a man in Ned Kelley Armour shotguns zombies, is an impressive feat.
The following set up may sound familiar to aficionados of Film Noir or even Neo Noir. A PI named Doc, down on his luck, witnesses the return of an old face from his past, and soon becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that spans the breadth and width of Los Angeles. Except that is a severely truncated version of the film’s events, I didn’t even mention the conspiracy of Dentists, a facsimile of the Last Supper or the unseen menace of Hairy Breasts.
There have actually been reports of audiences walking out of the theatre midway through this movie, deeply frustrated at the fractured storytelling and unappealing characters. At least one article has suggested that Audiences were expecting another Big Lebowski when instead they got something akin to Naked Lunch, and reacted accordingly. And I will be the first to admit, this is a film that requires multiple viewings. Even after having read up on plot summaries and looking up handy online guides to the different plot threads, I’m still not sure I caught everything that happens in the film. And with many acts of violence acts that might nauseate and titilaate in equal measure (a hardboiled Cop orally fellating a Chocolate Banana comes to mind), this isn’t a film that can be viewed casually. And that might be why I genuinely love this film so much.
This isn’t to suggest that the audiences who walked out ‘didn’t get the film’. Such an argument is insulting to all concerned parties, and it requires considerable hubris on the part of the critic to be sure that they completely ‘get’ a movie. But I loved that this movie respected its audience so much that it assumed they’d be happy to watch it multiple times. I love that it took chances, real chances with the structure of its story, and I even love that it flew a little too close to the sun. It didn’t hurt that it seemed to be borrowing from the Cohen brothers at frequent intervals, with the massive cast of characters and distinctly off-kilter tone. But one area where this film differs from the ouvre of the Cohen Brothers lies in its scope, whereas something like the Big Lebowski was a rather carefree subversion of a Film Noir while interspersed with other genre trappings, Inherent Vice is a full on Neo-Noir of immense scope, with the slight twist of starring a laid-back dope smoker than a Whiskey guzzling Hard-Ass. There are shootouts, blackmail, some truly deplorable villains and an ending that strikes a fine balance of being satisfying, open-ended and perfectly in keeping with the film’s tone. Opinions may differ as to whether this is a good film, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is a great film.
Of course no film gets away without its share of problems, and Inherent Vice has a couple of big ones. Much as I praised the story and its many twists and turns, it does rather rely on prior knowledge of Film Noir and Neo-Noir tropes, audiences unfamiliar with some of the more common cliches and archetypes will have a legitimate problem grasping the story. And there were a few moments that I’m not sure I could begin to explain in a coherent manner, particularly a scene at the end concerning the Hard-Boiled cop and a plate of Marijuana. And finally, there is a distinctly male gaze behind the camera, as I mentioned before. While the women in this film are well developed characters in their own right, and receive almost as much screen time as their male counterparts, they also seem to spend a lot more time topless or flat out naked. I wouldn’t mind so much, but none of the male characters feel the need to strip down in front of the lovingly positioned camera. Though I suppose that saves me the sight of Martin Short without a shirt, so there’s a silver lining in everything. There are a host of little problems beside, including certain segments of narration that confuse us further rather than clarify anything much. But, for me at least, none of these problems were deal breakers, though you should decide for yourself.
At the end of the day, I encourage you to see this movie, it’s ambitious, it’s daring, and it’s worth talking about. Even if we did have to wait around five months to finally see it after the USA had sufficiently snubbed it. But I like to think such colossal unfairness is balanced out by Australia getting Avengers: Age of Ultron a full week before the US. Which come to think of it, is a good place to stop for now.