The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Inherent Vice

Great filmmakers should be allowed to fail. Not only that, they should be encouraged to fail. When a great director fails, it's usually because he or she was reaching for something inordinately ambitious or outside-the-box and couldn't quite grasp it. There's merit in such an attempt, especially since it's just as likely to yield brilliance as it is dissatisfaction. Besides, the failure will probably be interesting anyway. I say this because Inherent Vice, the new film from indisputably great Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson, is by far 2014's biggest disappointment for me. It isn't that Anderson has made a bad film. He didn't. But what he did make, with respectable ambitions clearly in view, simply doesn't work.

Based on Thomas Pynchon's novel, Inherent Vice stars Joaquin Phoenix as “Doc” Sportello, a private investigator living in California during the 1970s. The only thing he likes more than solving mysteries is getting high. One afternoon, he receives a visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She has a new boyfriend, a real estate magnate named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc agrees to look into her claims that Wolfmann's wife is conspiring to put him into a mental institution, only to find himself navigating murky waters when the guy and Shasta Fay both disappear. Doc follows the clues, which lead him to a supposedly dead musician (Owen Wilson), a young runaway (Sasha Pieterse), and a wacko dentist (Martin Short) with ties to an Indo-Chinese drug cartel. Josh Brolin plays “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a police detective who does side work as a TV actor, and Reese Witherspoon is a straight-laced district attorney. Both have personal ties to Doc best left unrevealed here.

Pynchon's story is admittedly complex, but Anderson's approach does it no favors. The director delivers rambling scenes in which the drug-addled Doc has to engage in lengthy circular discussions with other characters, as he tries to clear the fog in his head long enough to understand what's going on. This has the effect of greatly slowing down the movie's pace, so that the mystery fizzles out. As (presumably) sober audience members, the humor of watching Doc deduce things in a haze of pot smoke quickly loses its appeal. There is a phenomenon wherein directors, once they achieve a certain level of success, can no longer make movies running less than two hours. Anderson has it. So do David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, and Quentin Tarantino. That's all well and good, provided the movies work. But sometimes shorter is better. Anderson seems too in love with these repetitive scenes, and two-and-a-half hours of them prove tiresome.

Inherent Vice becomes extremely hard to follow, in large part because the dialogue scenes go on so long that it's easy to forget - or stop caring about - what's happening in the investigation. (The fact that onscreen characters are perpetually, endlessly talking about off-screen characters doesn't help.) Coupled with this is a bizarre tendency to veer wildly in tone. Certain sections have low-key, observational drug humor – an arthouse Big Lebowski vibe, if you will. Then there will be abrupt shifts into big, broad comedy, such as when Doc, for no real reason, elicits an exaggerated, cartoonish scream when presented with a piece of evidence. Or the way Bigfoot eats a frozen banana in an erotic manner. And while I love Martin Short, when he pops up halfway through the film, you know any pretense of subtlety is over. Moments like these bump up against far darker and more serious ones having to do with sexual relationships, drug abuse, and criminal activity. It's hard to know whether Anderson wants us to laugh at Inherent Vice or see it as a profound exploration of 1970s counterculture morals.

The actors are all good, considering they're stuck in a cumbersome picture. Phoenix is a great choice to play the dazed and confused Doc, while Katherine Waterston makes a big impact as the woman whose allegiances are the biggest mystery of all. They – along with Brolin, Witherspoon, and Wilson – give Anderson their all. If only the story around them were tighter, leaner, and less convoluted. Inherent Vice is obviously Anderson's attempt to make a stoner movie for the arthouse crowd, and a throwback to vintage detective movies, and an examination of the peace-and-love mindset of the early '70s. The desire to go above and beyond deserves respect. That said, Inherent Vice is too much of too much, and therefore lacks the laser-focused punch of its director's previous works.

( out of four)

Inherent Vice is rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence. The running time is 2 hours and 28 minutes.

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