Sweet Melancholy: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice
This Is Where We Came In
“Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like–then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” – Jean Cocteau
If Inherent Vice is evidence, Paul Thomas Anderson has been listening. But not of his own work’s criticism, although he has maintained the ambiguity and unrelenting atmosphere that some critics bemoaned of his previous work, The Master. Rather, Anderson has listened to the criticism of Thomas Pynchon’s work, Inherent Vice and otherwise, with its eclectic unification of surrealism, slapstick, pathos, tragedy, and nostalgia.
As a film adaptation, Inherent Vice becomes an odd conglomeration of stoner noir, broad comedy, and art house cinema, which is perhaps exactly what Pynchon should be on screen.
It opens with the ethereal, peculiar narration of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who in the novel was little more than a throwaway character. She’s a friend of “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a hippie-doper with the occupation of private eye. Sortilège begins her narration, “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had.” Lifted from the page, the voice is dreamy, lackadaisical, and yet with hidden rhythms that indicate calm emotion of nostalgia and melancholy.
The she in question is Doc’s “ex-old lady”, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Shasta’s the one who’ll instigate basically everything in the plot, directly or not. Plot summary, though a standard feature of movie reviews, is beside the point here, as the narrative finds itself moving through various, obscurely connected adventures. Multiple minor characters pop up from time to time to clue Doc in to information that rarely assists him (or the audience). Indeed, attempts at plot summary end up quickly ditching the descriptive for the interrogative: Shasta Fay shows up at Doc’s, distraught and paranoid about her new boyfriend, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who she fears is going to be kidnapped by his wife and her boyfriend, and thrown in the loony bin. But . . . why, exactly?
Parsing out why characters do things, on top of what the plot actually is, will reveal not much more than a pretty darn intricate plot. Familiar faces (Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson) all in supporting roles, all wildly entertaining, are beyond explaining to someone who hasn’t seen the film. Unlike Casablanca or Argo, plot isn’t at or even near the top of the filmmaker’s agenda.
That’s one of Anderson’s own recent criticisms: he has been sacrificing plot and character and coherency for mood, atmosphere, and theme. That he has continued in this vein may be a disappointment to many of his past admirers, but anyone who can come into Inherent Vice humbly will discover one of the most literate and confident films of the decade.
Anderson and his cinematographer, Robert Elswitt, have shot this film mostly in close-ups, with a calm, observant camera. Directing in-frame through long-takes, rather than through dramatic camera movement or cutting, has created a film nearly as deftly constructed as those of late-period Kenji Mizoguchi. It reveals subtle nuances of the characters, who, while appearing as little more than caricatures, have hidden depths: fears, desires, longings, vulnerabilities. This strange humanism cuddles alongside phallic banana jokes and doper-humor.
The film is not about plot, no, but rather a deep nostalgia for something lost. Doc’s relationship with Shasta, and the way the world operates and changes around them, is the true core of the film. While the film lacks traditional catharsis, this is not a flaw. By deliberately forgoing it the film becomes capable of evoking in the audience its true emotional potential. It is a lingering film, one that is unavoidably haunted by the past, yearning for the idyllic scenes that memory can paint, like running down the street through rain with your ex-old lady looking for dope, realizing there is none, and not minding.