Review – Inherent Vice

There’s a moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s chaotically brilliant latest when Joaquin Phoenix’s perennially baked private detective asks someone what inherent vice is, only to be told “I don’t know”.

Like much of Anderson's work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe

Like much of Anderson’s work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe

It’s a telling exchange in a film that’s stuffed with plot threads, but is enjoying itself way too much to want to stitch them together into a traditional narrative. As whacked out as Inherent Vice is, though, it is filmmaking on a higher plane of existence that reinforces PTA’s credentials as one of cinema’s most distinctive and timeless auteurs.

The 70s are generally regarded as a paranoid come down from the flower-powered counterculturalism of the previous decade, but it’s also the same decade that produced the New American Cinema and Inherent Vice is a wistful and melancholic throwback to such classic ’70s revisionist detective films as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown.

Ouija believe it: 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) with Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) in Inherent Vice

Ouija believe it: ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) with Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) in Inherent Vice

This mood is mirrored by the film’s evocative soundtrack, that includes Harvest and (appropriately enough) Journey Through The Past by Neil Young, whose mutton chops and wide-brimmed hat provided the visual way into the California dreamin’ character of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello for Phoenix.

Doc is hired by ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to look into the disappearance of her wealthy real estate lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). As Doc disappears down the rabbit hole, his increasingly mind-altering investigation takes in black activists, nazi bikers, double agents, dodgy dentists, a weird cult (shades of his 2012 film The Master) and something called the Golden Fang. Meanwhile, hippie-hating LAPD Detective Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) makes his presence known from time-to-time and proves to be a curious love/hate companion to the shambling Doc.

What's up Doc: Private detective 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice

What’s up Doc: Private detective ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice

Anderson’s free-spirited adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel fits perfectly with the tone and mood of a film that, whilst not as goofy as the misleading trailer would have you believe, nevertheless has plenty of laughs courtesy of Phoenix’s irresistible central performance. His hilariously over-the-top reaction to a picture of a baby is priceless, while his irreverent scribbles during interviews and exchanges with Brolin’s square-jawed square are among the film’s many highlights.

Me and my shadow: 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Detective 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in Inherent Vice

Me and my shadow: ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in Inherent Vice

Anderson and Phoenix counteract this with moments of introspection, not least of which when he periodically looks out the window of his ramshackle beach house with a nostalgic yearning for a time that is already fading into memory; or chats with the wise Sortilège (Joanna Newsom); a character whom you suspect is possibly a figment of Doc’s febrile imagination bearing in mind her sudden appearances and disappearances and the fact nobody else interacts with her.

Phoenix is given plenty to work opposite a stellar cast, all of whom are able to put flesh on the bones of their characters thanks to PTA’s Oscar-nominated screenplay. Martin Short leaves you wanting more from his all-too-brief cameo as deranged tooth doctor Rudy Blatnoyd, while the excellent Waterston floats along as flower child femme fatale Shasta; the love of Doc’s life who may or may not be the best thing for him.

Inherent Vice does da Vinci's The Last Supper

Inherent Vice does da Vinci’s The Last Supper

Individual frames also lodge themselves in the mind; not least of which a throwaway moment around a busy dining table involving Owen Wilson’s missing-believed-dead Coy that looks like it’s lifted straight from da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Like much of Anderson’s work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe.

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Great Films You Need To See – Hard Eight (1996)

There are few directors who have masterminded such a ceaseless string of ambitious and visually brilliant films as Paul Thomas Anderson.

In a career that has spanned more than 15 years, Anderson has done for the American independent film what Christopher Nolan has for the blockbuster; namely to tear up the rulebook and treat audiences as the savvy, cine-literate group they largely are.

Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic debut Hard Eight

As well as directing two of the greatest films of the ’90s – 1997’s seminal Boogie Nights and its Robert Altman-esque follow-up Magnolia in 1999, Anderson has also been responsible for one of this century’s greatest cinematic achievements, his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Let’s also not forget his leftfield 2002 romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, without doubt Adam Sandler’s finest hour (which I appreciate may come across as damning the film with faint praise – it’s really good).

Big things invariably start with small beginnings and in Anderson’s case this was the little-seen Hard Eight.

Anderson emerged from that post-Tarantino/post-Sex, Lies and Videotape moment in the early ’90s when studios of all sizes were falling over themselves to buy up anything ‘indie’ and repackage it for the mainstream.

In Anderson’s case, his short film Cigarettes and Coffee played at the 1993 Sundance Festival and led to his being invited to hone his burgeoning craft at the Sundance filmmakers’ lab, a sort of Hogwarts for talented young directors. As well as being spotted by Sundance, Anderson had also popped up on the radar at Rysher Entertainment, which financed his first feature.

What Rysher giveth, it took away, however, and after Anderson completed the feature – originally titled Sydney – it took it upon itself to re-edit the film. Anderson kept hold of the working print of his original cut though and, after finding the $200,000 needed to finish the film, a subsequent screening at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and an agreement to rename it, Hard Eight made it onto the big screen. The fact it made only a small dent at the box office turned out to be irrelevant; Hard Eight proved a big hit critically and gave Anderson the calling card he needed to make Boogie Nights the following year.

Hard Eight

John (John C Reilly) is given a leg-up by the enigmatic Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Hard Eight follows Sydney, an aging, well-heeled loner who takes the down-at-heels John under his wing. John is penniless and on his way out of Las Vegas after failing to win the $6,000 he needs to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes pity on the beaten-down John and takes him back to Vegas to mentor him in the way of making money at the casino.

The film picks up two years later with Sydney still the teacher and John his eager pupil. With the absence of a father, a paternal bond has also been formed which comes in handy when a desperate John calls on Sydney to help him deal with a situation involving his new wife – waitress and prostitute Clementine.

The first thing to say about Hard Eight is that it features a fantastic cast, led by the brilliant Philip Baker Hall as Sydney. Anderson apparently wrote the part specifically for Hall, who had been drifting in the wilderness for a number of years and has since gone on to enjoy a successful career in his autumn years. Hall brings real gravitas to a part that requires subtle changes of character. Sydney is a man trying to make amends for a terrible decision in his past in the best way he can, but he’s not to be messed with, as Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) finds to his cost.

Equally good is John C Reilly as John. Reilly may now be best known for his comic roles, but his early career was made up almost exclusively with bit parts or dramatic roles. Hard Eight was as much Reilly’s calling card as it was Anderson’s and he uses his naturally doe-eyed persona to his full advantage in his portrayal of a character trying the best he can but who keeps making mistakes.

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Gwyneth Paltrow also excels as Clementine. It’s a thankless role in some respects; the tart with a heart who falls for John and drags him into a situation they cannot deal with, but Paltrow doesn’t employ the aloofness that has marred some of her other performances here, instead making Clementine a damaged soul magnetised to the equally bruised John.

And let’s not forget Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small but notable cameo as an obnoxious craps player. He’s only on screen for a brief time, but Hoffman doesn’t need long to breathe life into his characters.

The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over the film (something acknowledged by Anderson), with sweeping tracking shots, dazzling visual flourishes and unusual editing style that he embraced even more fully in Boogie Nights. One criticism of the film is the use of music, which can feel a little over-bearing at times. Compared to There Will Be Blood‘s extraordinary soundtrack, Hard Eight feels a little cheap.

Hard Eight is nevertheless a fascinating first salvo in a superb directorial career (his latest, The Master is one of the most anticipated films of 2012) and an intriguing snapshot of the state of American independent cinema at the time (how many directors can boast such a top-notch cast with their first feature?). His is a star that is sure to burn brightly for many years to come.