Inherent Vice has been making the critical rounds recently, and word on the street is that it’s a disappointment of sorts. We’ll get to that in a bit, for that is a matter of debate. But first a word on another question: is it an Anderson film to begin with? Not only is the critical consensus muted on this freak-out comedy from one of America’s finest modern dramatists, but many are out and about voicing their opinion that it sees the director rejecting his trademark clinical style for something a bit too pudgy. The thing that I think remains under-discussed about the film, regardless of its quality, is how Anderssonian it is at the level of core functionality, if not necessarily content. The norms of any of Anderson’s iconographic films are all at their fullest here: phenomenal sense of artificial place, landscape-of-the-mind filmmaking coaxing out sublime work from cinematographer Robert Elswit, intricate shot placement that doesn’t so much favor intellect over emotion as cram the idea of emotion into intellect head first, twitchy realism with a hypnotic, impressionist streak of age and wither, and camerawork that can’t decide whether it wants to glide or quaver. In fact, if anything, and this may be where a hefty portion of the hesitance to connect with Vice is found, these realities are pushed well beyond their normal limits into the realms of obtuseness here.
Which brings us to content, very different here from most of Anderson’s work, although not so perpendicular to his normal intent as many are wont to claim. Anderson’s films are all defined by time and place as they relate to character. The seedy, pugnacious underbelly of ’70s California, the detached, improvisational world of modern LA struggling to seep out through the sweaty heat, the pervasively empty American West in its waning years where rugged, down-and-dirty capitalism struggled to transition to the more clinical, corporate variety, and most recently, the stiflingly moralist, shaken post-war utopia dreamworld of ’50s conservatism given to middling souls and baroque masquerades of suffocating similarity. All are Anderson’s interpretations of the American Nightmare, his iconographic reflections on worlds less of reality than permanently of the American mind. They are America’s fluid dreams of its past and present torn asunder to the point where the fluidity is traded in for barbed, uneven, disparate angles. All are his descent into the impenetrable regions of the American mind, and he is forthright about showcasing just how much effort American people put into being impenetrable when they feel it suits them.
If Inherent Vice sees Anderson having a little more fun with this idea than usual, it maintains the base theme almost shockingly intact. Everything about Inherent Vice is designed in one way or another for the express purpose of recreating a dreamlike pastiche of not a certain era in American history but the idea of a certain era in American history, and going on to critique and poke holes in this era most vociferously. For Inherent Vice, this image is the dreamy drug-induced drip of the early ’70s post-Woodstock collective hallucination, where humans were so at odds with one another their only real solution was to turn to whatever mechanism was most available for forgetting. For some, it was the aura of the drug. Others turned to social paranoia against drug users (and against pretty much everyone deemed guilty of changing America’s ways, for that matter). Either way, it has become a place and time of the American mind, a location fundamentally inseparable from the myths of old and an American lore of rebellion and raucous rawness.
Inherent Vice is Anderon’s way of acknowledging the silliness of the image without so much stifling the film in a painstaking sense of the dours. The protagonist of the film – Larry Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an arch-hippie private detective – is meant to invite laughter, the whole idea of the care and hard-hitting precision of a detective always attempting to discover new things consciously at odds with the constantly lost and uninterested hippie stereotype (Phoenix by the way is wonderful in a performance that, mimicking his director’s work here, takes the same careful translucence – not transparency, crucially – he’s spent years cultivating and crams it into a different tonal register). And for his part, Anderson makes no attempt to dilute either stereotype and instead indulges in the clashes between them. Absolutely nothing in the film suggests Sportello is anything but everything that constitutes our collective mental stereotypes of hippie-culture, and yet the screenplay deals heavily in forcing him into situations where he has to act a hard-boiled detective and has no interest whatsoever in doing so. Most of the film’s laughs (significant laughs at that) emanate not from jokes but a visual-aural contrast between Sportello and the rest of the stereotypes freely floating around him.
Throughout, the dialogue, all diffuse and lethargic, doesn’t so much clip off with intent and purpose as fill the screen and waft off of it, giving the film a soft, laconic, diaphanous energy that contrasts wonderfully with the hard angles that make up the bulk of the film’s visuals. Anderson often shoots with an eye for closed spaces at odds with empty, large impressions, not so much boxing things off as cutting through them. The film opens and closes on such an image, with parallel lines cutting upwards through the frame, and even Sportello’s facial hair (mutton chops to cleave cheese with) give his puffy, round face a rigid, angular symmetry that doesn’t belong. When Sportello matches to Josh Brolin’s wonderfully composed, well-formed detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (who takes a distaste toward Sportello’s unorthodox demeanor), the contrast between the two draws sparks from a battle between pure pent-up energy waiting to burst out of its squared-off shell (Bjornsen) and a boxy shell attempting to push an un-contained, thoroughly un-composed object into a square (Sportello).
PTA also proves his understanding of the greatest rule of narration – use it to subvert it –by allotting it a pointedly relaxed, disinterested, non-committal, and almost alienated vibe, as though it isn’t really telling us anything we care to know, or don’t already know. In his disruption of one of noir’s foundational techniques, he positions the film as a modern day anti-noir successor to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Inherent Vice, on the whole, is a tad too gentle and not nearly wrought with enough contempt to earn that comparison, but it similarly evokes a disconcerting milieu of interpersonal aimlessness and floaty, gauzy hauntedness, with people drifting through life and never truly touching down or connecting with the world around them. (Admittedly, I find Elliot Gould’s attempts to connect, or his belief that he does connect, in The Long Goodbye more disturbing for how truly isolated his character ultimately remains at the finale).
Inherent Vice is lesser PTA. That much has never been in question, and I’m not about to go to bat for it as a major work. But PTA is a major director, and “lesser” is a fundamentally relative statement. When so many critics go on and on about how it doesn’t achieve the heights of PTA’s other works, they forget the discussion of how high indeed those works were (then again if we’re talking Anderson and high…), and what that means for Inherent Vice as a work in relation to other films outside of its director’s canon. If “lesser” Anderson Inherent Vice is, then it is spectacularly lesser, and this says more about its director than this film. A study in contrast marked halfway between trippy and trepidation, the ever-aimless Anderson uses his normally lethargic, carefully composed hypnosis to craft a work of humor rather than tragedy. It may not be major Anderson, but it’s a major film for 2014. All, in fact, because Anderon’s core, his sense of identity, cuts through the low-key aimless fat with glee.
It sees the director not only in full command of his normal skills but pushing on them and seeing where he can take them, composing his frames as harshly as normal and emphasizing the same contrast with empty spaces he normally does. He merely explores the contrast from a different angle here. He uses everything in his repertoire that normally catches people at their loneliest and most distant, but he retextures the alienation toward a more disconcertingly chilled-out groove in contrast to the hot-wire, cocaine-addled, free-form histrionics of, say, Magnolia. It’s not quite normal Anderson, but it’s certainly not anti-Anderson either; it’s more like a variation on a theme (filtered here through a critique of the information-heavy, goal-oriented genre of the hard-boiled film noir by intentionally stripping away anything goal-oriented and casting us about with a bunch of people for whom “goals” are specious constructs altogether). Of course, because it’s still the man who made Magnolia and The Master at his most intoxicating, the people are still alone and remote, and still hopelessly lost in a world out to get them. But Sportello and co. have other friends they can turn to in times of need, if you catch my drift.