The Hazy, Messy Mystery of Inherent Vice

o-INHERENT-VICE-facebookWith Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson has added another piece to his thematic masterwork: a chronicle of the 20th century in America. PTA showed us the death of the Old West and the dawn of institutionalized greed in There Will Be Blood, he captured the postwar drifting and self-delusion of the 1950s in The Master, he gave us the excess and and hedonism of the ‘70s and ‘80s in Boogie Nights, and chronicled the existential angst and frustration of the end of the century with Magnolia (seriously, he just needs to adapt The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and he’d be pretty done). Now with Inherent Vice, he gives us a sprawling fable about the national identity crisis that came with the end of the 1960s. And while that fable makes use of the various film noir archetypes to help frame its message, in the end it is a much more fluid and casual narrative, one that is focused more on capturing the mood of its setting than on spinning a yarn. While the resulting film may not so much be my cup of tea, I can’t help but admire what it accomplishes.

If I had to try and boil down Inherent Vice to just one scene to summarize the experience, it would probably be one of several conversations between Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) and Coy (Owen Wilson), where the drug addict/musician-turned-right wing informant explains the rock and the hard place that he’s caught between. The film is built on this dichotomy of the American experience, particularly in the transition from the ‘60s to the ‘70s: the desire to be free and detached but also wanting the security and stability of being part of the polite whole. Many of the characters seem to be at different points on the same closed circuit, going from being straight-laced citizens to being drugged-out hippies and freaks to being straight-laced again. In following this neverending loop, the film illustrates both the underlying sinister mindset of the straight-laced world, and the hidden despair of the free-love world. It shows both sides as being broken and incomplete, with the closest idea to peace coming from a return of a father to his woman and child, to a life that is no longer drowned in drugs but also seems detached from the more conservative suburban existence.

A more literal version of this story would state all of this much more plainly and bluntly, but Inherent Vice is much more suggestive. Plot points are revealed in such casual and matter-of-fact ways that they sometimes barely register at all. Rather, the film breezes by the actual plot and conspiracy as if it were just background noise on numerous occasions. With the characters, too, we tend to get fleeting and vague considerations as to what they’re really about, and when we do get more intensive explorations of certain characters, it almost feels as if it’s being done in a haze. On the one hand, this allows the characters and plot machinations to become emblematic of larger trends and ideas, but on the other hand it obscures the narrative more than a little bit, at least in the moment. But Inherent Vice isn’t a narrative film, really. It’s trying to capture a era’s mood, a changing cultural identity, and such things are much too obtuse to be properly explored in traditional storytelling.

With that in mind, Inherent Vice falls very firmly into a frustrating category for me. I appreciate its visual style, the performances, the themes and certain genre tropes, but in the end the lack of a concrete narrative tends to keep me at arm’s length. It’s situations like this that drive home why my tastes tend to run towards more traditional dramas and adventure films, and why that can be so frustrating for me. It’s not that I’m ashamed of the movies I do like, but I do wish I could get more fulfillment out of films like this, that are less stories than they are cinematic poetry. There are some films that are able to accomplish it in one way or another (see: Boyhood) but too many good movies in this area fail to connect with me. It’s disappointing to see a film that gets so much right and yet leaves me feeling detached at the end, but my tastes are my tastes, and Inherent Vice doesn’t fulfill them enough.

While I think Inherent Vice accomplishes its own goals very well, I also think those very goals rob it of the narrative urgency that probably would have made me more invested in it. The film retains many of the archetypal hallmarks of film noir that I enjoy, but they are really only there as touchstones to smuggle more existential concerns into the film. It’s a beautiful film, engaging in its own way, and I would certainly want to revisit it and reconsider it more on its own terms. For right now though, Inherent Vice might be too narratively woozy for me. Here’s hoping that PTA’s next foray into the American Century is something more my speed.

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