Saturday, January 24, 2015

"Inherent Vice": Worth It, Even If I Didn't Entirely Understand It

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Adapted Screenplay - Paul Thomas Anderson
Costume Design

It’s very tempting to compare Inherent Vice to one of my all-time favorite films, The Big Lebowski.  Both are comedic films with noir sensibilities about stoner detectives attempting to unravel a plot much bigger than themselves.  However, to judge either film through reference to the other would be an injustice to both films, as Inherent Vice is an entirely different animal than The Dude’s screwball antics.  Inherent Vice may be a comedy, but more than that it is a subtly crafted labyrinth of interconnected plot threads that ultimately add up to an immense conspiracy.  To claim that this is a new Lebowski would be to assume a nihilism in the film that simply isn’t there, and while I don’t necessarily think Inherent Vice is one of the best films you’ll see this year, I do think it is definitely worth seeing at a time when most other Oscar bait is so unappetizing.

Our protagonist is Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective constantly berated by law-enforcement for being a dirty hippie, which he most unabashedly and assuredly is, a joint never far from his lips.  The time is 1970, just as the counter-cultural revolution of the 60’s is coming to a close and the corporate world is making its move to capitalize on said revolution’s cultural pastiches.  The story… Well, I think the trailer for the film does a better job of describing what’s going on than I ever could, and even that is dense and confusing.  I feel the need to disclaim that there may be entire scenes where you will sit in confusion, as the plot is purposely littered with branching and reconnecting threads, forcing you to keep track of a whole slew of emerging conspiracies that only begin to reconcile toward the film’s conclusion. 

Luckily, snappy dialogue and ludicrous delivery give this film the necessary momentum that not every moment need clarity.  In fact, the primary purpose of the film seems to be its audience’s bewilderment, providing a dialogue-induced haze reminiscent of the onslaught of drugs the entire cast is constantly imbibing.  The film even sneaks in some tragic moments, the shining example coming in the form of an extended, one-take monologue from Katherine Waterston as Doc’s ex-girlfriend/employer.  But this is offset by the comedy, which often comes in the form of bizarre phallic imagery, absurdist situations, and wit so sharp that it may not realize it has cut you until three lines later.

However, I do think this film has its faults, notably in that it is overlong in its resolution.  My understanding is that the film’s script adheres quite faithfully to the novel it is based on, and while that may be appreciated by fans of the book, it does not make for an entirely engaging three-act structure.  The film’s primary conflict is resolved approximately 105 minutes in, leaving an additional 45 minutes to wrap up loose ends.  That isn’t to say that interesting events don’t happen during that remainder, but it does make one want to check their watch a bit more often than a film should.  Some reworking of events would have provided a plot resolution in closer chronological proximity to the conclusion of some key character arcs; but as it is, the film isn’t broken, simply slow.

Inherent Vice is a great alternative to all the lackluster films battling it out for Best Picture this year.  It’s smart, funny, and wickedly clever in its commentary on America, capitalism, and drug culture.  And I may just have to see it again to track all the details that I probably missed on my first viewing.  But as of this first viewing, I can definitely say this one is worth the price of admission.

What absurdist stoner comedies to you appreciate?  Share your favorites in the comments below.

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