New York Film Festival Part 2: Inherent Vice vs. Our Expectations
By Johnny Pomatto
Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film was the challenging religious debate film “The Master.” Prior to its release, buzz accumulated that the plot was a thinly veiled attack on scientology and the origins of its conception by L. Ron Hubbard. The final product ended up being more of a tale about two men whose relationship was challenged by rivalry and love for one another, and the details of the new religion in the film turned out to be incidental. I still thought it was a beautiful and complex masterpiece of a film, but it certainly wasn’t what audiences were expecting to see. I feel like this same thing is about to happen with Anderson’s latest film, INHERENT VICE. Many are eager for Anderson’s take on the noir detective genre. While he does deliver what he promised, it’s in his own style and on his own terms, and I wonder if his core audience is going to be somewhat disappointed after the expectations in their imaginations.
Adapted from Thomas Pynchon novel, INHERENT VICE transports the tone of Raymond Chandler detective stories to 1970’s Malibu, much like Robert Altman once did (more successfully) in “The Long Goodbye.” Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, an aging stoner, surfer hippie who moonlights as a private detective. When an ex lover shows up at his door with mysterious talk of a possible plot against her current boyfriend, Doc agrees to look into her case. Please allow me to be vague when discussing the actual case at hand, as it’s so incredibly complex and intricate that I don’t believe I could explain it all if I wanted to. Much like in Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” INHERENT VICE is more about Doc trying to figure out what the mystery actually is, rather than seeing it as something to solve. It does stay true to the twisty nature of classic detective stories, where whole tangents can amount to nothing and some crimes are surrounded by too much corruption and power to be righted. The setting of Southern California and the hazy world of the fading hippies’ generation is an interesting twist on the genre, but so many different cultures and philosophies are introduced in the film and most of them feel like they’re left unexplored. The marijuana culture, which is so prominent in the story, alternately is used as a punch-line that’s never all that funny and as a deterrent to advance the story forward. Needless to say, Doc’s journey takes him to places involving drugs, kidnapping, prostitution, and murder, and he meets a large cast of colorful characters along the way.
The cast is truly impressive and most give game and captivating performances, even if they’re not all used to their full potential. Phoenix, who is in just about every shot of the movie, continues his steak of fascinating roles and plays it like no one else I could imagine attempting. While it’s well in line with his character, I do wish we could hear him a bit better through his constant whispers and mumbling. Josh Brolin is a notable standout as Doc’s nemesis and ultra square police detective. His presence and demeanor are a mystery in itself, and the interplay between Brolin and Phoenix is the best reason to see “Vice.” As excellent as most the cast is, they tend to drift in and out of each scene while you wait for them to get some colorful material to work with. With names like Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Michael K. Williams, Joanna Newsom, and Eric Roberts popping up, the conclusion I came away with was that there are a lot of great actors who would play any role just for the chance to work with Anderson. Many of them are quite good in their roles, (particularly Short and Wilson), though there wasn’t a single one that I didn’t want to see more of, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine the running time of this film being padded even longer than the 2 ½ hours it currently stands at.
Though at times the film feels like two hours of exposition and set up with a 20-minute conclusion, little by little the details of the mystery come together and it starts to make the skeleton of a story. Much of the remainder filling it out achieves moments of dreamlike brilliance, but I found I didn’t appreciate or absorb these sequences fully until I was walking to the subway after the screening. My companion and I had a fantastic conversation on the way home analyzing all of we saw and theorizing as to what things meant to Anderson and what they meant to us. This talk was the most thrilling and satisfying part of our night, and it left me eager to see the film again, to put some of my theories and ideas to the test.
INHERENT VICE doesn’t get released theatrically until mid December and so I’ll have a long time to continue thinking about it before I get the chance to see it again. And I will see it again, because I’m still haunted by some of the choices Anderson made and I know if I look hard enough I’ll begin to figure out the confounding moments that left me frustrated. A second viewing could alternatively expose even more fragility to the structure, and given that this is a detective story, the primary allure of seeing the movie at all, (to witness the solving of the mystery), has now been taken care of, leaving me with fewer questions about the plot and more about why the story was told in such a way. Why has Anderson, who used to be so great at layering human psychology into compelling stories now suddenly feel the need to keep those two things separate? And why does it bother me so much? I’ve put my trust in him as a director so many times before, and while strange choices like musical numbers, abandoned plot threads, and rainstorms of amphibians once puzzled me on initial viewings, years later I’ve come to appreciate them as strokes of genius. I hope the same thing happens to me on further viewings of INHERENT VICE, though it has a lot more questions to answer for me than any of Anderson’s other previous works. At any rate, come December we will have a lot to discuss with one another.
A warm glow overcame me as I watched MR. TURNER, Mike Leigh’s latest masterpiece about famed painter J.M.W. Turner. Turner was an artist who many would say painted with light. One canvas could light up a dark room. Likewise, Leigh’s beautiful photography seemed to spread a golden yellow wash throughout Alice Tully Hall, and I still can’t stop smiling when thinking of it. To me, there is nothing more breathtaking and romantic than watching a new Mike Leigh film for the first time, and MR. TURNER ranks with some of his best work.
Audience members fearful of a stodgy, British biopic about a painter they’ve barely heard of need not be afraid. Leigh is never satisfied with telling a conventional story in a traditional way. His films are truly collaborative efforts, as he rehearses for months with his actors, who are integral to creating the screenplay. Like all of his films, MR. TURNER was written during hours of improvisational sessions with the cast, who use what few facts are known about Turner’s life as jumping off points as they craft the film from little scenes about the personal, day to day life of a man who just happened to be a master artist. This leaves the opportunity open for much levity and humor, as this legend suddenly becomes much more human and relatable than one would imagine a Victorian era painter might be. Leigh doesn’t hit the beats that one expects in a traditional biopic. We don’t see Turner as a young boy getting his first paintbrush, nor do we see him master his craft through years at the academy. Though the film portrays two love affairs that Turner had, almost all of the romance is conveyed merely through mundane conversations about business, the weather, and also the occasional passing grope. Towards the end of the film, as Turner’s health starts to decline and his eyesight begins to fade, we are never treated to explicit conversations about this. We know his sight is failing because suddenly his paintings look a little less sharp, with colors blending into one another. This is all the information we need to convey that a life is beginning to come to an end.
I’ve already spoken praise of the actors’ ability to help create the story of the film, but their performances are just as revelatory. Timothy Spall, a veteran of most of Leigh’s films, gives quite possibly his greatest performance to date in the title role. A man of few words, Turner often does little more than offer a swine-like grunt in response to a question or statement, but Spall is able to speak volumes with these grunts, and one gets the sense that he could write a whole dictionary to translate what each of them means. Spall deservedly won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and if there’s any justice, he will continue picking up long overdue awards throughout the season. Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey are also magnificent as the two very different women in Turner’s life, both displaying longing and tenderness in relationships that offered little passion. The rest of the cast is rounded out with Mike Leigh regulars, including Paul Jesson, Ruth Sheen, Leslie Manville, and Martin Savage, and by now they all seem to be pros at delivering the exact style needed to make an epic story out of little moments.
Last week I saw David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and remarked that there are few directors better than Fincher at making digital video look like film. I can now add Leigh to that list. I was certain that the stunning photography in MR. TURNER had to be shot on film, but I was astonished to learn that Leigh and Director of Photography Dick Pope actually shot the film on video, but achieved a distinct, old fashioned look by shooting it through antique lenses. Pope mentioned that he actually used the exact same lenses that Stanley Kubrick shot “Spartacus” with. This achieved a truly gorgeous look, in which we are often shown close ups of Turner’s paintings, immediately followed by shots of outdoor landscapes. For a brief second, we are unsure if we’re still viewing a painting or real life. The images blend seamlessly into one another. I know that there are a lot of high profile films opening this December, and one might want to save their multiplex money on special effects laden films like “The Hunger Games” and “The Hobbit,” but I urge you to see Mike Leigh’s MR. TURNER on a big screen. It’s a transcendent experience, and watching a master like J.M.W. Turner live and ultimately die in this film, I wondered how many more films the 71-year-old Leigh would be able to bring us. For me, it will never be enough. I’m clearly biased in my love for him, but I believe that there is no other director on earth who can make films like Leigh. And now I’ll start to hold my breath, waiting for his next one.