When I wrote about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice a while ago, on the basis of a first impression at the New York Film Festival, I said that I liked the movie but needed to watch it again to decide how much, and why. Now that the film is in general release, I’ve gone back to it and can say wholeheartedly that you, too, ought to see this picture twice. Inherent Vice is that ambitious, while pretending very convincingly to be a mere genre parody; it has that much to say to our present moment, while enveloping itself in bygone clouds of patchouli and marijuana. Besides, you’ll need the first viewing just to get your bearings. Inherent Vice is also that flagrantly problematic.
Nothing less could be expected of a film that borrows not only its characters, plot and language from a Thomas Pynchon novel but also its worldview. Atmospheric details are faithful to the book, down to the make and model of someone’s car or the song that’s playing in a pizza joint. Dialogue is faithful, too, with entire exchanges reproduced verbatim. But most faithful of all is the mood of retrospective wonder and regret about Los Angeles toward the end of the hippie era (after the Manson murders, before Nixon’s re-election), when interlocking high-level interests (apprehensible by those on the pavement mostly as dark, spooky forces) had not yet finished corrupting whatever was hopeful and alive in music, dope and love—a time when it was still possible to imagine, as the film’s narrator puts it, that the American future would mercifully fail to transpire.
A great theme; a great setting. So what, you may ask, could be so problematic? Start with the protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello, the noble private eye in Pynchon’s teasing equivalent of a Raymond Chandler novel. Played by Joaquin Phoenix with barely concealed glee and a swath of sideburns that might have been cultivated with Miracle-Gro, Doc is a valiant but woozy investigator of complex criminal conspiracies—a man so attuned to clues of all sorts that he sometimes needs to scratch the words “paranoia alert” into his dime-store detective notebook, so stoned that he can be sent off on a bum steer by a Ouija board. With Doc as your point-of-view character, plot exposition is maddening enough to make you chew through the side of your popcorn box.
Then, when it comes to suggesting the meaning of these crazy events, the film makes itself doubly problematic by spelling things out in voiceover. The only excuse Anderson gives for so brazenly trashing the doctrine of “show, don’t tell” is to promote one of the novel’s incidental characters into the job of narrator. He localizes Pynchon’s authorial omniscience and sometimes vatic prose in Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), letting her explain, both on camera and off, everything from the dynamics of Doc’s relationship with his former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to the sad history of Los Angeles real-estate development. But now that she’s been put to this use, is Sortilège still a character, or has she become a mirage? Her voice remains dreamy, her smile otherworldly, whether she is dabbling in divination and astrology or supplying Doc with hard facts. In keeping with her name, which translates as “charm” or “spell,” she can also vanish from Doc’s side in the middle of a scene, leaving you better informed but perhaps more puzzled.
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These quiet disappearances by Sortilège are mild cases of the more acute eruptions of the absurd, the ludicrous and the uncanny that constitute one-half of Anderson’s style in Inherent Vice. Instead of working up to a single big implausibility, as he did in Magnolia, he sprinkles the equivalent of a brief shower of frogs into scene after scene: a TV commercial suddenly speaks directly to Doc; a wealthy socialite pauses for a close-up in her living room’s Hollywood lighting (“Jimmy Wong Howe did it for us, years ago”); an excerpt of Les Baxter’s throbbing jungle-palace magnificence wells up on the soundtrack for absolutely no reason; a startled Doc responds to a shock by turning his face into a Tex Avery cartoon. You could interpret this repeated cracking within scenes as the outward expression of Doc’s drug-enhanced inner reality, but it’s also possible to think of these breaks as the inevitable result of the pressures contained in the other half of Anderson’s style. In Inherent Vice, he keeps a sense of menace rippling under the surface—whether the scene is goofy, talky or meditative—permitting violence to come into full view only twice: in an act of bloodletting at which Doc turns out to be surprisingly competent, and in an episode of deeply disturbing sexual ugliness. What’s notable is that no catharsis comes from either of these outbursts. Violence purges nothing in Inherent Vice. It just sucks Doc, and the audience, more deeply into woe, in a movie where the only release available is delirium.
And at the end, even that’s gone, despite the willingness of Inherent Vice to fulfill the conventions of the detective movie by restoring order. In fact, if you’ll allow me a vaguely worded plot giveaway, there are three restorations. First, Doc in effect saves himself by rescuing his doppelgänger, a hippie musician who was driven underground (Owen Wilson), recovering him from the Hades of the straight world. Second, Doc attains a spiritual unity of sorts with the brutal cop who has been his nemesis (Josh Brolin, in his best enraged form) and is therefore another doppelgänger. Last and most important, Doc finds himself reunited with his soul mate, Shasta, who is (according to genre rules) the woman who is in trouble, and who is trouble in herself.
But when Inherent Vice (why not Total Depravity of Man?) has finished with all its virtuoso fun—all the slapstick, parody, mind games and cavorting in period detail—it leaves you with the understanding that a true reunion is not possible. Shasta is nestled against Doc’s shoulder in the final image, but he doesn’t look at her. He’s staring back at the camera, with a band of clear light across his eyes and an expression of solemn disillusionment sunk into his features. The story, rooted in John Calvin as much as Raymond Chandler, has ended not in hallucination but knowledge. The American future will develop as planned, and here we are.
* * *
While we’re on the subject of inescapable corruption, let me recommend Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which the Russian authorities have put forward to compete in this year’s Academy Awards—this, despite the portrait of Vladimir Putin that proudly hangs over the desk of the film’s filthiest character, and the pious denunciation of Pussy Riot that drips from the mouth of the most hypocritical.
Set in the far northwest of Russia, on the Barents Sea, Leviathan begins and ends with unpopulated, widescreen images of waves crashing against rocky cliffs and the hulls of ruined boats rotting on the shore, where you can find a whale’s skeleton embedded in the sand. Lingering over these shots, Zvyagintsev gives you a sense of wildness and isolation, so that the immediate concerns of the characters will seem to rattle around in a vast expanse of time and space. Also, he makes sure you will remember the location of the story’s contested piece of property. It’s an old, boxy two-story house and workshop, whose broad windows overlook an inlet to the bay.
This is the house that sinewy, rough-hewn, middle-aged Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) inherited from his father. He lives in it with his young and increasingly exasperated second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who works gutting fish on an assembly line, and his angry, alienated teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev); and he is going to lose it, because the municipal authorities have condemned the property by right of eminent domain, paying a tenth of its value. As the story begins, Nikolay’s smoothly handsome army buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) arrives on the train from Moscow, bearing credentials as a smart big-city lawyer and a folder documenting the crimes of the local mayor (Roman Madyanov). If Dmitri fails to have the condemnation overturned, he plans to show the folder to the mayor and then threaten to pass it on to high-placed officials.
From the epic scale of the landscape, we come down to the pettiness of a courtroom where a deadpan official speed-reads the verdict against Nikolay as if it were a patter song, and to a chauffeur-driven limousine in which the tubby, foul-mouthed mayor rolls about in drunken dishevelment. This is how the slow destruction of Nikolay begins: with satirical buffoonery. Eventually, there is also intimate melodrama, political intrigue, casual but very thorough brutality and, shortly before Nikolay hits bottom, a bitter argument with a priest over the Book of Job.
True to its title, Leviathan is a big film—long, sprawling, somewhat ungainly, but justifiably sure of its power. It has pity for Nikolay, Lilya and Roma; but it smashes them and their little shelter even so, and in the space that’s been cleared erects an unholy new alliance of state and church, because that’s how things are. At the end, you might imagine you hear the roar of a monster echo across the Barents Sea—though whether in grief, outrage or pitiless self-assertion is impossible to say.
* * *
Because I belong to a couple of organizations that hand out awards, I spend a large part of the late fall strapped into a chair with my eyeballs propped open so I can’t look away from the horrors before me, as if I were Alex in A Clockwork Orange when he’s being subjected to aversion therapy. In my case, I’m being forced to watch the movies that the big studios and a bunch of industry prognosticators (how do you get that job?) have decided are worthy of Oscars. “For your consideration,” the studios say, with a politesse that would be more convincing if they didn’t have a knee against my chest.
Somehow, none of these solicitous people thought to ask me to consider Chris Rock’s Top Five, a sort of contemporary black Sullivan’s Travels about a stand-up comedian turned franchise movie star who longs to be taken seriously (his bid for respectability is a leaden drama about the Haitian revolution, titled Uprize!), and who must learn that everyone, himself included, will be happier if he just makes people laugh. Maybe Rock, as director, has been too generous with his large and raucous supporting cast to attract attention to himself as a candidate for Best Actor—even though he goes as deep in his moments of hurt and frustration as any of his competitors, and in his comic moments is funnier than the lot of them together. But surely someone ought to push for Rosario Dawson to get an award for her portrayal of the newspaper interviewer who, in the course of one day in New York City, becomes Rock’s antagonist, lay therapist and love interest. Not only does Dawson make the most of her role in Top Five, but she actually has a role. If you want to see one of the richest, most complex female characters in American film this year, go to the picture that’s being marketed as a dirty-talking ethnic comedy.
But what about the movies that the studios think are good? I can tell you that Wild, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, also features a very complicated female character, played by Reese Witherspoon with extraordinary intensity and conviction. I just wish the feminism of the story hadn’t turned out to be the thinnest of veneers, lending sheen to a very traditional American tale of personal redemption through self-discipline in a picturesque landscape. This is Hudson River School filmmaking with an infusion of sex and hard drugs, leading to a finale that’s meant to be uplifting but instead comes off as smug. For a nobler effort, you might look to Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which gets two cheers from me for having its heart and mind in the right place. It’s a big and entirely honorable film, but it leaves you feeling you’ve attended a history pageant that sparked to life only when David Oyelowo was performing Dr. King’s orations.
Angelina Jolie’s biopic of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken, never comes to life at all, dishing up stale Italian-American stereotypes (ah, Mama’s gnocchi!) and endlessly familiar prison-camp brutalities. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a biopic of Chris Kyle, does better, thanks to a bulked-up, Texas-accented Bradley Cooper in the title role, but there’s nothing here that you didn’t already see—and think about more—in The Hurt Locker. J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, a would-be exposé of New York City’s rotten soul circa 1981, makes Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain shout messages at each other while bathed in fashionably murky cinematography. You’d think you were watching a 1950s television drama where they forgot to turn on the lights.
The musical Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, has given Rob Marshall such brilliant material to work with that he almost doesn’t destroy it. Unfortunately, Marshall learned nothing from his hideous botch of Nine—or from the mess he made of Chicago, for which he was actually rewarded—and still has no idea how to direct a movie. He just gets as much coverage as the budget allows, then throws everything into the blender—so you wind up working against what you see on the screen, rather than letting yourself go with it. But when it comes to screwing up great material, nobody this season outdoes Ridley Scott and the four—count them, four—screenwriters who send the Israelites across the Red Sea at low tide in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Early in the film, when an elder informs the prophet of his origins—set adrift in the bulrushes, lifted from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, all that—it’s a bad sign that Moses (Christian Bale) mutters grumpily, “That’s not even a good story.” True to the judgment they’ve put in their character’s mouth, the filmmakers proceed to mess with everything they can in the narrative, despite the original’s having wowed the public for better than three thousand years. Some people are complaining that the Egyptians in Exodus: Gods and Kings are too white. I say the problem is that Scott has turned wonders into Wonder Bread.