Critical Dissent: Debating Inherent Vice with Yen Nguyen

Josh Brolin and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice (2014)It’s fair to say that Inherent Vice, the latest from American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, is a divisive film. This adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is a digressive, intoxicated journey through 1970s California as perpetually-stoned PI Larry Sportello – everyone just calls him “Doc” – (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles into a world of neo-Nazis, property developers, drug-dealing dentists after a reunion with an ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Like the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, it superficially resembles the noir films of the ‘40s and neo-noirs of the ‘70s, and like The Big Lebowski it demonstrates little interest in whether or not its audience can follow its convoluted narrative. I had a first-hand example of how divisive it could be at a media screening last week; I was enthralled, but the friend I’d invited along to the screening walked out barely an hour into the film.

I was impressed by Inherent Vice, if a little baffled by its specifics, but while the critic I’ll be chatting with today didn’t walk out of the film, he certainly had some reservations. Yen Nguyen is an aspiring writer from Maryland, USA, who, in his own words, “needs to get off his ass and drag the pencil ‘cross a page more often.” He posts art and writing to his tumblr, is a constant presence on Twitter, and is a regular contributor at pop culture commentary site Deadshirt. He’s also a massive P.T.A. fan.

I know you didn’t hate Inherent Vice, Yen, but from your review – where you talk about the film losing you with its “jarring pit stops into exposition and its various inconsistencies” – I got the impression that it fell short of expectations?

(Note: readers should expect to encounter spoilers.)

Yen: Well, it’s tough for me to justify using that turn of phrase. I’ve learned from the There Will Be Blood-and-onwards era of Anderson’s career that I really shouldn’t be entering his movie with expectations—at least, not ones that set me up to miss what he’s trying to do. I was stuck looking for a central conflict in The Master, for instance, and missed out on that movie’s unique oddness almost completely during my first time with it. It feels to me like PTA is treating narrative structure like a problem to be solved by a variety of roundabout solutions. What I will say about Inherent Vice is that its particular answer to the narrative question is kinda “eh, *rocks hand back and forth*.”

Dave: Let’s start with the narrative then. Personally, when it comes to prioritising aspects of a film that determine my enjoyment, plot lands pretty far down the list. I think about films like Mulholland Drive or Goodfellas – both in my top five films of all time – I don’t remember Henry Hill’s rise and fall, or however you’d describe Mulholland Drive’s plot. I think about how they make me feel. Of course, this is a pretty facile defense in of itself; as a critic it’s weak of me to entirely dismiss a movie’s issues just because “oh, it felt nice.” But I found Inherent Vice’s appeal primarily textural; the grain of the film stock (I’m pretty sure my screening was digital, but still: the colours and the feel of the film felt natural in a way so few modern films do), the solemn heat of the California sun, the oh-so-1970s soundtrack that acted more like a background playlist than a score for the most part.

Yen: And for so many other movies, I’d agree with you that “feel” is a worthy—sometimes even worthier—goal for any director. And I’m no cold heart, either. When Vice is rattling off jokes and taking its time to just sit with its setting, it’s a great movie on par with any of PTA’s previous efforts. That oner at the beginning of the whole thing that rocks with the best-drums-ever-recorded of Can’s “Vitamin C” is an impressive short all on its own.

My problem with Vice comes from the fact that PTA, ultimately, still wants to tell the story and lays down every single necessary fact that the viewer would need to follow along, solve it themselves, etc. It’s not a movie unconcerned with plot. In fact, it feels like one much too concerned with it!

Dave: Joanna Newsom’s ubiquitous pseudo-narration never particularly bothered me. I can understand your point – that it acts as lazy over-exposition – but the way it’s executed is so dreamy and almost poetic that it served to reinforce the film’s dreamy, hallucinatory atmosphere rather than detract from it. I don’t think it makes the plot more accessible so much as making you think, as an audience member, that you’re following what’s going on until all of a sudden you’re not. That point was about the two-thirds mark for me (and I’m not alone in that, apparently. In his mixed review for The Guardian, Mark Kermode commented that he “found [himself] going with it for about two thirds of the time”).

I think that’s by design. I think the fact that you think you understand what’s going on until suddenly you don’t is perfectly simpatico to the film’s goals. It’s also tied into why the film’s intoxicating atmosphere abates in the film’s final half hour or so, why it starts to buzz your high (I won’t be the first or last to observe that the net effect of Inherent Vice is make you feel like you’re stoned). For me, Inherent Vice is about the degradation – the failure even – of the counter-culture of the time, how overly simple – if wonderfully optimistic – rhetoric was sabotaged and infiltrated on every front. So the initial sense that everything will make sense in the end is critical to that, I think?

Yen: And… funny enough, I’m not actually criticizing any of those aspects at all! Newsom’s narration is charming, mysterious, and sometimes purposefully vague, sure, but it’s also written. The scenes I actually hate are the ones I haven’t heard brought up in a review so far: two-shots where two characters sit and talk and talk and talk about the plot, momentum grinding to a halt. These scenes feel more like bullet points than dialogue. Some characters never exist outside of this space, relegated to the movie’s margins and only brought out when Vice needs them to act as expository tools. Benicio del Toro and Owen Wilson do not act in this movie.

Dave: Couple things on these two-shots. First up I don’t entirely agree that they just feel like bullet points; take the wonderful scene at the diner between Phoenix and del Toro where the waitress gravely informs them that “they’re going to want to get fucked up” before their meal. It’s an expositional scene, sure, but there’s that flavour to it, that dancing spark of life. Plus I think the (over?)-use of close-ups in such scenes is integral to that atmosphere of intoxication, evoking the sense of being out of it and focusing on someone’s face that now seems impossibly huge.

But I agree with you that, say, del Toro’s character acts primarily as a crutch for the plot; he feels a little extraneous (unlike Reese Witherspoon’s character, who provides necessary plot details while feeling entirely organic to Doc’s character and important thematically besides). At least del Toro suggests a universe that connects this film to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? I don’t agree on Wilson, though. I didn’t understand the emphasis on his sub-plot while watching; he seemed like an outlier, especially given Doc’s assertion that he no longer took marital cases. But in retrospect, it makes sense. I think his reunion with his family at the end – the compromised hippie returning to the nuclear family fold – is Inherent Vice in a nutshell; it’s bittersweet, optimistic and pessimistic all at once. Hippies might not last, but at least maybe we can be happy. Wilson’s a bit of a blank slate, but that works for the role he’s playing as everyone applies their own expectations onto him. (After all, he’s a dead man.)

Yen: Those scenes feel deathly voiceless, though. I didn’t feel life in any of those scenes—Wilson’s scenes at the docks and in the compound were especially blank—aside from some set design or a shoehorned line to compromise between the plot-heavy mystery and the carefree comedy. I understand that not every scene can have you rolling in the aisles and there’s an argument for these scenes providing the necessary contrast that affords us a breather. But certainly that principle is built upon the idea of taking us down from something to something less and not just jamming something and absolutely nothing side-by-side. The charm is lost on me.

Josh Brolin and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice (2014)I will admit, though, that I’m also basically 100% unfamiliar with the time in history that Vice explores thematically. As someone born in 1990, I will readily confess that I am very much of a young’un and the specific feelings of the late 70’s comedown off of a decade-long high are just “things I’ve heard about.” I can kind of see the points people are arguing for in terms of its thematic meaning, but I can’t help but feel unaffected by the way Vice goes about communicating that greater feeling. A large chunk of the movie feels like a companion piece to Pynchon’s novel of the same name, that I haven’t read. I know that this argument might seem contradictory to my previous, but I would have preferred more words to sell the setting and characters, rather than the plot.

Dave: I’ll leave the discussion about exposition there – I take your points, I just didn’t find those scenes as much of a burden as you (and I loved pretty much every scene in the compound, especially Wilson’s wordless “what the fuck”). I do think there’s something to the film being distanced from the history it chronicles; I’m certainly nowhere near old enough to have experienced any of it personally, but perhaps more crucially neither was Anderson. Pynchon was born in the late ‘30s, while P.T.A. was born in 1970 – the same year in which Inherent Vice is set. Obviously you don’t have to have lived through an era to make an effective period piece – P.T.A. himself demonstrated that with There Will Be Blood – but perhaps the director’s second-hand experience with the era limits how personal it feels.

One last question before we wrap this up: What are your thoughts on Josh Brolin’s character, Bigfoot? There’s such an intimate connection between Doc and Bigfoot – the latter appears on the former’s TV screen and hassles him via phone at night, and they even intone the same words simultaneously late in the film. It’s such a peculiar, unique relationship: combative but connected, homo-erotic and paternal. I still wonder if there’s a chance that the story is Fight Clubbing us, even though that’s a pretty clichéd ‘theory’ nowadays. Certainly the blurring of identity between the two men is the most interesting part of the film to me: how did it strike you?

Yen: It’s interesting! I didn’t take the time to read much into it, to be honest, but seeing them at odds and constantly looking to inconvenience the other is perhaps the deepest joy of the whole thing. The most I got from their relationship hinges on that moment of overlapping consciousness near the end of the film when, to twist an old saying, they were broken mirrors for each other that were still right twice a day.

The characters are as inseparable as any two get in this movie, but unlike the other pairs in Vice, each of their scenes is built less upon one party wanting to escape as much as both want to get into it even more. Doc’s got his sidelong glances at Bigfoot’s completely un-self-conscious behavior, and Bigfoot’s got his powers of the law to hold Doc up whenever he feels like they need another sarcastic chat. It certainly means something that Doc is as content as can be (with some problems), just as Bigfoot is as hapless as can be (with some upsides). I can’t put my finger on what that means, but I’m happy enough to simply observe their dynamic.

Dave: That seems like a good a spot as any to wrap this up. Thanks for being the Bigfoot to my Doc, Yen! (Or is it the other way around?)

Yen: It’s the other way ‘round.

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