Inherent Vice (2014)

Inherent_Vice_film_posterIt’s not something you think about often but stoners and film noir fit together fairly well. Why more people haven’t capitalized on this niche is rather surprising. Think about it for a moment. Film noir in the classic sense is known for its private eyes, femme fatales, chiaroscuro cinematography, and perhaps most importantly a jaded worldview straight out of Ecclesiastes.

Some of the greats are also notorious for utterly baffling plots that come to no clear conclusion. Still, rather than chocking it up to faulty storytelling, these unfathomable aspects only lead to a greater ambiguity. Thus, you can imagine what occurs when our point of reference is on something. You take something that is already indecipherable and make it absolutely impossible to discern reality because there’s no sense of knowing what is actually real even before funneling down to specific plot points. Inherent Vice is precisely that film, a neo-noir bathed in rays and full of dopers.

Paul Thomas Anderson makes this affectionate and supposedly quite faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel connect most obviously through voice over. It captures a certain rhetoric — the poetic lyricism that manages to anchor the plot in some bewitching way — while also providing a great deal of latitude in storytelling which the narrative gladly capitalizes on.

This private investigator, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix),  is a benevolent stoner. His girl Shasta flutters back into his life and like they always do she comes as the bearer of bad news — a flower child in trouble with a lead for him to follow before she disappears into the night. Being a private eye he follows up the loose threads but he’s not necessarily a good private eye or a generally judicious one and that doesn’t bode well.

It’s pointless to try and tie everything together. In fact, this is as good a time as any to disclose that Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, and Owen Wilson all show up but it’s almost possible to forget about them.

Doc investigates some vague leads about one real estate owner Mickey Wolfmann who has disappeared, gets word of a mysterious syndicate called the Golden Fang while searching after a member of a cult, and subsequently gets hired to find a missing husband. His worst enemy and greatest ally simultaneously is Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). All the cases get resolved without the least bit of satisfying closure.

Still, the incomprehensible plot highlighted by absurdities is almost something that needs to be expected from a film such as this built out of the tradition of The Big Sleep (1946), The Long Goodbye (1974), and even Harper (1966). It’s another knowing riff off of the private eye pictures of old.

The bottom line being that precise malaise. It’s easy to lose it amid the stoned out status quo, characters medicating themselves on smokes and drugs and drink. They seem happy enough. At the very least they’re not torn apart by anything. And yet the very fact that Doc in particular witnesses so much — unveils so many things — and remains despondent is indicative of the whole story.

It’s an understated chill comedy that is meant to mesh rather ironically with the film noir world and like Altman’s film before it, there’s this lovely incongruity that works so well. All highlighted by the very fact that we fail to truly discover what is fact and what is fiction.

Everything is taken in stride rather nonchalantly by Doc who ambles along with his various leads in the relaxed manner that will remain his calling card. His attempts at scribbling down notes only result in random word clusters. But, and I hesitate to say this because it might give the wrong impression, in some sense, it does feel like we’ve seen this humor before in Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun (1987).

We like Doc. If he wasn’t high all the time, he’d probably be a pretty nice, cognizant, charming fellow but his response to all that is around him is rather pathetic and pathetic in the way of a dog with his tail between his legs. Flailing to the will of corrupt cops or allowing the vices of others to rule the day. But then again, what is he supposed to do in this world? The everyday villains are too many, the mountain to overcome is too high, and so he slowly sinks back into his fog. It’s a nicer, more comforting place to be than the world at large.

Cross that with Neil Young’s ambient jams in “Journey through the Past” and “Harvest” or the laid-back radio plays of 93 KHJ including The Cascades, The Association, Sam Cooke, and Kyu Sakamoto and it goes down pleasantly. As do the agreeable touchstones of Adam-12 and “Three Hour Tours” on primetime television.

It provides the film with a bit of the nostalgic haze that still manages scintillating vibes of sunny Southern California. But no one need remind any of these characters that this is the same beach paradise that saw the egregious murders committed by the Manson family, the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, the Watts Riots, and so on and so forth.

Taking a hit can sustain for a momentary high. Embracing your girl in the pouring rain can remain a fond memory. Music can float through your brain lazily. Television makes a nice diversion. The pursuit of money and power can drive a life for a while. But surely life is more than all of these — the things we use to mask the hurt and the pain we are subjected to as human beings — the numerous distractions in this “postmodern” world of ours. Surely there’s gotta be more…

4/5 Stars

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

punchdrunk1When Paul Thomas Anderson said he was making a comedy with Adam Sandler, people undoubtedly scoffed at him. I know I would have if I had known about this film back then. However, he proved that you should never question him as a director. Much like a Kubrick or a few other auteurs, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of Anderson, but you have to admit his films are interesting and very much their own entity.

Punch-Drunk Love is a comedy certainly, but not in your typical sense. It’s a romance, but it’s not quite like any romance I’ve ever seen. Thanks to the bolstering performance of Adam Sandler, it’s whimsical and odd. He plays Barry, a rather passive and antisocial type, who seems constantly quelled by the dominating personalities of his many sisters.

He’s obsessed with buying up pudding for a chance at frequent flyer miles, he picks up a harmonium tossed on the road-side, and most of all he’s lonely, but he’s not comfortable going on dates. His sister tries to set him up with a nice friend of hers who happens to be British (Emily Watson). Barry rejects an offer to go out to breakfast with them and out of loneliness calls a phone sex line. Out of stupidity, he hands over his credit card info, and the rest becomes a big scam that he can’t escape.

Thus, his work phone at the office is ringing off the hook from a girl trying to steal his money. His sister is continually trying to set him up, and Barry seems to live in his own little weird world at times, overflowing with his own personal odd ticks and quirks. He also has an anger problem, meaning he’s bad news if you give him a hammer.

punchdrunk2At times the film is thoroughly unsettling and nervously, uncomfortably funny, thanks in part to Sandler, but also the pervasively weird sound design that utilizes the harmonium. At his core, Barry is a lonely and confused man, aren’t we all, and it reveals a depth to Sandler that many probably have not seen before. It helps that the sweet Emma Watson makes us believe he is likable and in truth, he is somewhat endearing in how he can get lost in an apartment building or always wears the same blue suit. He even follows her to Hawaii for the sake of love. But don’t get any wrong ideas. This is nowhere near the realm of 50 First Dates.

3.5/5 Stars

There Will Be Blood (2007)

fe325-there_will_be_blood_posterStarring Daniel Day-Lewis in a brilliant performance, the film opens at the turn of the century where a Daniel Plainview finds oil and starts a small drilling company. After a worker dies, Plainview takes the abandoned baby as his son H.W. He uses the boy to endear himself to others and his successes grow. Time passes and Daniel is approached by a boy who knows the location of oil. Daniel goes there and buys up all the land he can, becoming a wealthy man in the process. However, not everything is wonderful. He begins a long conflict with a local preacher (Paul Dana) and his son becomes ill after an explosion. Later a man comes to Plainview claiming to be his brother and Daniel also abandons his son. The years pass and he is more greedy and tyrannical and on top of that he is also a drunkard. He cruelly mocks his son before cutting all ties with him. Finally, he commits one last violent act. What stands out is that Plainview has no redeeming qualities and this man proclaiming to be a minister is also an undesirable. This film had moments reminiscent of Giant, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and even Citizen Kane. However, despite the commanding performance of Lewis, it is not quite the same caliber in my mind.

4.5/5 Stars