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'Inherent Vice' is the best or worst movie of the season, depending on who you ask

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Verge teammates Chris Plante and Jake Kastrenakes discuss the new film from director Paul Thomas Anderson

Inherent Vice premiered at the New York Film Festival this past weekend and will open nationally this December. The film is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.

Chris Plante: I think Paul Thomas Anderson made a prequel to Laguna Beach.

Hand to heart, that's what I thought when the lights raised on New York Film Festival's screening of Inherent Vice. The director of There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Boogie Nights has drawn a curly cosmic line from Tim Leary to Lauren Conrad. It's a nostalgic retelling of California's wealthy elites terraforming the sunny, relaxed shores of Orange County into the tacky wasteland they are today. It's also a slapstick gumshoe noir.

The movie is a couple months from official release, but let's say up front that I can't see us spoiling this film.

Doc Sportello, a private dick played through a cloud of chronic by Joaquin Phoenix, is on the hunt first for the billionaire beau of his suntanned ex-girlfriend Shasta, and then Shasta herself. On the path between the detective and the truth stand a motley crew of Southern California characters, including a coked-out Dentist (Martin Short), a maritime lawyer (Benicio del Toro), a former tenor sax star (Owen Wilson) and a dope-loving district attorney (Reese Witherspoon), and a Black Panther (Michael K. Williams) in cahoots with the Aryan Brotherhood. We hear a lot about cults and collusion and the corporatization of culture.

Part film noir, part slapstick comedy

But the mysteries are resolved long before the film's conclusion. And I think that's because the real story is happening between the Sportello and his frenemy, Bigfoot Bjornsen, a police detective who loves keeping hippies beneath his heels, quite literally.

The mystery isn't so much a mystery as it's a narrative thread tightly binding two conflicting world views: the stoner counterculture of the late 1960s, on life-support following the Manson Murders, and the conservative mainstream of the same era, embodied by square-jawed, short-haired Nixonites. So we have Sportello on one side and Bigfoot on the other.

This conflict, The dude versus The Man, or should I say the man infringing on the dude's turf, is eternal. It was playing out in my Lincoln Center movie theater: A few hundred well-dressed New York socialites paying upwards of 10 times the average New York City theater ticket price to be tastemakers for a film that, in broad strokes, is about the co-opting of young, cool, strange culture.

Or you know, maybe it's not that heady at all. Maybe it's just a dream. The film dares you to overthink the mystery of the real estate billionaire, and maybe I've fallen into my own paranoid, conspiracy theorizing rabbit hole about its greater themes.

What do you think? Am I totally high?

Inherent Vice

Jake Kastrenakes: You're a little high — it's hard not to be coming off of this movie.

The thing is, I'm not so sure that the battle between cultures ultimately matters here. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, maybe if I want to get nostalgic about it all. But to the movie — and to its characters — that battle seems to matter as much as a bag of Cheetos does to someone high: sure, it's important, but it's not that substantial in the end. Inherent Vice is a comedy, and as far as I see it, it's interested in little more than bouncing between screwball scenarios (the effectiveness of which we can discuss later).

I'd argue that Inherent Vice isn't successful in conveying the themes and ideas that you bring up (not that that's a good reason not to talk about them). They're present, yes. But what are we meant to think about them? In an effort to bring Thomas Pynchon's novel faithfully to the screen, we end up with all of the text and none of the subtext. And that's a huge problem, as this movie feels pretty empty to me.

I'm not so sure that the battle between cultures ultimately matters here

On the other hand, that almost plays into what's going on here. The problems that Sportello and the rest of Inherent Vice's hippies (or whatever term it is that they prefer) are facing off against are vague. They're doing too much dope. The people they know want to settle down. Their culture is falling apart and it isn't really clear why.

The true "villain" in Inherent Vice is this mysterious and deeply confusing enterprise known as the Golden Fang — no one really seems to know what it is, and it seems like it might be a dozen different things. But here's this wonderful quote from Paul Thomas Anderson in The New York Times that lays it out straight:

"The Golden Fang, to me, is just a depository for whatever" enrages you, Mr. Anderson said, using a saltier expression to distill the essence of conspiracy theory, the steady backbeat of Mr. Pynchon's books. A brownstone goes down in your neighborhood and a crummy condo goes up? "Golden Fang Enterprises, probably!"

What we see in Inherent Vice is very much the wacky, final remnants of this culture along with a few of the supposed evils attacking it. No one really wins in the end. Bigfoot isn't happier that his cold, repressed culture is coming out on top, and Sportello is accepting of the fact that it's all going away — he's probably known that from the start: the first thing he tells us is in this movie is that he finally opened up a real office.

But I'm not sure what we're meant to take away from it. Was the era great? Did it need to go? It's hard to say if this film is the result of pure nostalgia or if it has something to tell us about this recurring story of culture change.

It's funny that you mention "the dude vs. The Man," because I'm thinking maybe Inherent Vice wanted it to be "The Dude vs. The Man."

Plante: You are crazier than a dentist getting turnt on whiskey and cocaine.

You describe Inherent Vice as a screwball comedy, and a lot has already been made about Anderson citing Top Secret! and Airplane! as inspirations for the film. And at the end of your letter, you nod at The Big Lebowski, too. I don't know how much Inherent Vice really owes any of these films, though. Sure, the lead character is a stoner drifting through a film noir. And yeah, a number of scenes have slappy physical gags that would make the Zucker brothers proud. But Anderson has such a strong voice, that the film felt unique.

I guess it's a comedy, but really I believe the genre evolves throughout the movie. It starts quite light, but gets darker, grimier and realer, until finally a gun gets pulled. You could make an argument that the film's trajectory mirrors that of the hippie movement, which began with such good vibes and went sour with the Manson murders, which I mentioned up top, and the movie mentions more than any other historical event of its moment.

The trajectory of the film is like the trajectory of the hippie movement

I also don't think the villain is the Golden Fang, which is a MacGuffin disguised as a crime syndicate. Golden Fang is a word that makes your ears perk up. It keeps you interested. It gives you a tangible finish line. But that's not really what Sportello is looking for. He's looking for his ex-girlfriend and the old life she represents.

At the beginning of the film, the narration — provided by Joanna Newsom, who is just absolutely perfect — describes Shasta as this tanned, relaxed young woman who'd been free of emotional pain. But when we see her, she's dressed proper and weeping. She's changed and so have the times. Sportello wants the old days back, but we know he can't find something that's already gone.

Later in the movie, we see this magical moment Shasta and Sportello shared in the rain years earlier. Shasta looks at this sprawling, empty lot, then they cuddle beneath the shelter of an old fashioned downtown storefront. The next scene, we see that same shot, but now, in that lot, stands a towering, golden and gawdy office complex. I can't shake that scene. We cherish these memories that happen in tangible space and in intangible periods, and when we return their gone.

I'm curious how you think the film works as a comedy, or if it doesn't work. And I want to know how you unpack the connection between this film and The Big Lebowski.

Inherent Vice

Kastrenakes: Man, I feel like we watched two totally different movies. Because as much as I recognize that all of the things you bring up are present in Inherent Vice, I think that they just do. not. work.

Paul Thomas Anderson has an incredibly distinct and powerful voice, but I feel like that’s all but drowned out here by his devotion to the text. (Now, admittedly, I have only skimmed through Pynchon’s novel, but I get the impression that far too much of this movie is taken word for word and beat for beat, and that’s not how you bring a novel to screen.)

The thing is, I don’t know who Sportello is. I don’t know who Shasta is. I don’t know who Bigfoot is. In a casual sense, sure. A noir always starts with a woman walking in the door. And I know what a gruff detective is like. But who are they really? And what are they looking for? These things are given to us in tiny bits and slivers that are often as confusing as the noir plot itself. Really, it’s like we’re seeing everything through a haze of smoke. There are some nice moments — like Sportello and Shasta in the rain — but I don’t think that they’re tangible enough to create a powerful emotional or thematic core for this movie. I’ll admit, there’s enough in there to try to unravel into something coherent, but, like a noir plot itself, there isn’t really a compelling reason to do so — and you might just hit a dead end anyway.

I feel like we watched two totally different movies

So what is this movie? As far as I can tell it wants to be a comedy on top of a noir, using a noir’s senselessness to let it bounce around from strange and cool moment to strange and funny moment to whatever it thinks up next. Mash up The Big Sleep and stoner comedy and you get The Big Lebowski, right? Inherent Vice plays it differently, and I don’t think it plays it as successfully. There are funny moments, and there are cool moments, and I think this movie is really just supposed to be a lot of those strung together. There isn’t really a plot. And it’s way too loose thematically and emotionally for that to really drive us through the movie’s two and a half hours either.

All of which makes me think that it’s as much of a comedy as it is a noir. I wouldn’t say that it’s wildly successful at being a comedy, but I’m pretty sure that’s a big part of what it wants to be. I mean, go back to the dentist sequence you reference: does that have any bearing on the rest of the movie? It’s just a ridiculous scenario thrown in because they had Martin Short. Same goes for Michael K. Williams’ character and that dead guy’s sister.

This all makes me sound pretty cold on the movie. Honestly, I’m not. It’s interesting, it’s entertaining, I just think it bites off way too much and tries to keep it rolling for way too long. It tries to subvert confusion, but just comes off confusing. It’s the kind of thing that a novel can get away with, but I don’t think it’s been effectively brought to the screen here.