I don’t even know where to begin with the festival’s centerpiece, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (Grade: A), other than to say that I feel like I’ve just watched a greatest-hits of film noir at high speed under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms. To see it again would be to see it for the first time. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, it has a sense of a conflicting authorship that doesn’t exist in Anderson’s previous films. Even his other adaptation, There Will Be Blood, was more PTA’s than Upton Sinclair’s.
But the movie once again showcases the filmmaker’s genius when it comes to period detail. The film is a stunning immersion in the (nonexistent, alas) town of Gordita Beach, California, in 1970, as seen through the chronically stoned eyes of private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). As his sometime tagalong, Joanna Newsom explains his thinking in voiceover.
Inherent Vice wastes no time kick-starting its self-strangling plot, a postmodern spin on The Big Sleep—or perhaps a psychedelic cousin to The Long Goodbye. Like Robert Altman’s film, it’s set during an era of fadeout for the flower children. Doc is approached by the ex he still yearns for, the wonderfully named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), to investigate matters related to her current squeeze, a Jewish real estate developer with an inexplicable affinity for neo-Nazis. Things get even stranger when Mickey and Shasta both disappear, though in the immortal words of Frank Drebin—Anderson has claimed the Zucker brothers as an influence—“that’s not important right now.” Everything in Inherent Vice is connected; in a running joke, new characters often ask Doc to investigate the person he’s just come from seeing.
Contradictions abound. A newly clean junkie (Jena Malone)—whose own missing husband (Owen Wilson) has a conflicted set of political priorities—says she now works as an odd sort of drug counselor. (“I try to talk kids into sensible drug use.”) A heroin ring uses a syndicate of dentists for a front. A deputy D.A. (Reese Witherspoon) is literally in bed with the competition. A gorilla of a cop (Josh Brolin), described as having “that little evil twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violations,’” serves as the hippie Doc’s comic foil. A freak trampoline accident just might be a murder.
Inherent Vice can be seen a chronological and spiritual prequel to Boogie Nights, a portrait of a last gasp of a idealist freedom in the face of government distrust and an encroaching private sector. In true Dude-like manner, Doc’s druggiest delusions prove to be justified; his seeming casualness as a detective (“something Spanish,” he scribbles in his notes, after getting a Spanish-language clue while hopped up on an inhalant) is irrelevant. Inherent Vice subscribes to the neo-noir tradition of Chinatown, in which all mysteries remain hidden in plain slight.
Putting the dope in dope fiends, Inherent Vice is easily Anderson’s funniest film. Although the giant cast (which includes one-scene roles for Michael Kenneth Williams and Jeannie Berlin) technically makes the film an ensemble piece, it’s also a moody character study, with the massively sideburned Phoenix acting as the center of chaos in just about every scene. Flashing his Freddie Quell half-smile and wide-eyed reaction shots, Phoenix provides a string of deadpan non-reactions that just keep on giving; so does his occasional change of hairdo. Inherent Vice abounds with more sight and sound gags than it’s possible to absorb in a single viewing. A spiritual coach is introduced muscles-first. Doc and the sybaritic dentist Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short) noisily snort cocaine. A giant package of heroin is carried across the screen as nonchalantly as if it were a piece of furniture. Doc marches toward an LAPD station in a manner that might have pleased Buster Keaton.
I’ve read only a bit of the novel, and some of the credit for this invention surely goes to Pynchon. Yet with Robert Elswit’s richly saturated palette and an end-of-the-party, lived-in production design (by David Crank rather than usual PTA collaborator Jack Fisk), Anderson has made this world come alive in a way that the reams of dialogue on the page barely begin to suggest.
The protagonist’s insecurity with romance is also of a piece with Anderson’s other films, especially The Master and Punch-Drunk Love. The use of water to conjure the past—whether in stunning shots of seaside homes at dusk or a lovely forward-and-backward tracking shot in the rain—seems like quintessential PTA. The director extends long takes in a way that accentuates both comedy and anxiety. Waterston—who, along with the superb Phoenix and never-funnier Brolin, gives a standout performance—has a startling, lengthy monologue that manages to be erotic and disturbing at once. This is a film that makes you question everything you’re seeing, and even your own mental state; the paranoia is enhanced by the discordant strings of Jonny Greenwood’s score. Based on a first viewing, I don’t think Inherent Vice is as great a film noir as The Master, but its place in the noir canon seems assured.
What could possibly follow Inherent Vice? How about a new film from Martin Scorsese? The 50 Year Argument (Grade: B-), which Scorsese co-directed with David Tedeschi, was conceived for the 50th anniversary of The New York Review Of Books; it can already be watched on various HBO platforms. The film does a variably engrossing and even cinematic job of conveying the publication’s sensibility and intellectual voraciousness. It revisits some of the journal’s greatest hits, including Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking discourse on photography and Joan Didion’s early advocacy for the Central Park Five. Norman Mailer serves as the doc’s unofficial court jester throughout archival footage. It’s hard not to admire Robert Silvers, the NYRB’s editor since 1963, although this somewhat sprawling movie lacks a central figure with the screen presence of Fran Lebowitz, the subject of Scorsese’s Public Speaking from 2010.
About as far removed from bookshelves as it’s possible to get, Marah Strauch’s Sunshine Superman (Grade: B) is certainly the festival’s most vertigo-inducing film. It’s a portrait of Carl Boenish, considered the founder of BASE jumping, and his wife, Jean. Carl filmed many of his exploits himself and is often shown with a camera mounted on his helmet. Sunshine Superman is constructed in part from the original footage, reenactments (some featuring Strauch herself), and interviews. The emphasis on record-setting daredevil stunts—with Boenish and his entourage invading an under-construction Houston skyscraper—gives the film a surface similarity to Man On Wire. Still, the upshot is much grimmer; even for those who don’t know Boenish’s story, his absence among the talking heads tips his fate.
If Sunshine Superman doesn’t exactly inspire comprehension of the desire to feel like you’re “flashing through a 20-story building in one second,” it is immersive enough to induce panic. About halfway through, I wanted to shout at the screen, “Just. Stop. Jumping. Off Of. Cliffs. Already!” Boenish repeatedly says that he’s not looking to get people to do exactly what he does—just to inspire them to reach for their own dreams. That’s hard to argue with, but while this testament honors his vision, it’s also, perhaps, a movie about knowing when to quit.