Fact: Paul Thomas Anderson has been trying to pull off the "Great American Movie" ever since I remember. Or, even better, creating a sort of "daisy-chain" of "Great American Movies" that work together as a mosaic of America, the not-so-beautiful, as seen from the inside of its underside.
After the 19th-century ruthlessness of There Will Be Blood and the post-war aimlessness of the seriously underrated The Master, Mr. Anderson fasts forward to 1970 with this take on the celebrated writer Thomas Pynchon's 2009 deconstructed detective novel (allegedly blessed by Mr. Pynchon himself). Inherent Vice is set in that liminal zone between historical eras, at the heart of the disruption of "what used to be" but before "what will be" comes into focus, and portrays an America asking what went wrong after "having it so good" for so long, and beginning to understand that the post-Summer of Love free-for-all does not necessarily have the answer.
Grasping at the straws of power and money while trying to find out where they will be next coming from, it's a study in the uneasy cohabitation of the "old guard" and the "new guard" in that seedy underbelly of a Los Angeles whose free'n'easy sunshine betrays much darkness cracking underneath.
Nowhere as in Inherent Vice has the director been more redolent of Robert Altman's deceptively shambling mosaics (and, indeed, it's difficult to not look at the film without thinking of Mr. Altman's much-derided take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye). Though there's a nominal hero in Joaquin Phoenix's easy-living private eye Doc Sportello, he's as much viewer's surrogate as witness to a pageant of Californian life parading by him, a continual relay race of characters that come in and out of focus and populate a sense of time and place that coalesces around both Mr. Phoenix and the would-be femme fatale that gets the ball rolling, Doc's former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (guilelessly played by Katherine Waterston).
The plot is as convoluted as any of Mr. Chandler's (or James Ellroy's) novels and derives from the exact same concept: the apparently open-and-shut missing woman case becomes the doorway to a concentric plot that uncovers weird scenes under the carpet, greed as the basic motivation for everything and money and drugs as its instruments.
Inherent Vice could be a pothead Chinatown or a Chandler-on-acid satire, and its playfulness is no doubt inherited from Mr. Pynchon's novel, but it's all heightened by the straight-forwardness classicism with which Mr. Anderson films everything. Had he dialed back on the trappings required by the period setting and played it straight as a classic noir, there's no doubt that it could have worked as a traditional tale - but that's not counting on the pervasive hazy, air-headed smoke that is central to the director's take on noir.
Since the genre has always been as much mood and tone as narrative, Inherent Vice sets up gladly all of the genre hallmarks only to present them as an endless series of smokescreens, sleights of hand that show just how much they're mere tools to reach an end. There is a plot - sort of - but no tidy wrap-ups nor a conventional happy ending (though there is a kind of ending). Instead, we have a meta-fictional construct that follows the rules while bending them to its own effort.
And since noir is often about love and hope, that's exactly what Inherent Vice is about, only in a twisted, playful way that meshes the sensibilities of Mr. Pynchon's writing and Mr. Anderson's filmmaking. In so doing, it confirms how much the director is one of the most idiosyncratic directors currently working in American cinema, and one of the very few that can assume the legacy of the formally adventurous yet classically-inspired "New Hollywood" directors of the 1970s.
Inherent Vice is not a spoof nor an ersatz - it's its own, defiantly assured, mash-up, one where logic seems to go up in smoke and stays there if you're willing to look for it in the clouds. And the latest in Mr. Anderson's great series of Great American Movies.
Cast Joaquín Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Martin Short, Jefferson Mays
Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson; based on the novel Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon; cinematographer Robert Elswit (colour); composer Jonny Greenwood; designer David Crank; costumes Mark Bridges; editor Leslie Jones; producers Joanne Sellar, Daniel Lupi and Mr. Anderson; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures and the Ghoulardi Film Company in association with IAC Films and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened January 23rd 2015, NOS Colombo 1, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)