The Private Investigator, along with the Cowboy, is a uniquely American character type with its own genre of storytelling. In reality, the life of a private eye is perhaps not all that interesting: a lot of following around of unhappy spouses, a lot of price disagreements and, probably, difficult clients. But in fiction and film, the life of a private investigator starts to seem amazingly compelling: these are adventurous, tough figures, often living by a gruff moral code that may put them in front of a few punches from thugs and police alike. In many of these ways, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is a familiar figure. But this private investigator has a serious fondness for weed, coke, and greasy pizza to go along with his PI temperament. This is not the hard-boiled dick of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—he has a less-buried, softer center. Inherent Vice has earned comparisons to Robert Altman’s deconstruction of the genre, The Long Goodbye, and to the Coen Brothers’ burnout riff on that movie, The Big Lebowski¸ but what it brings to mind most directly is the detective fiction of Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer character hasn’t been immortalized on the screen in the same way that Hammet’s Sam Spade and Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe have but is every bit the literary accomplishment of either.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Writers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Thomas Pynchon (novel)
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Editor: Leslie Jones
Music: Johnny Greenwood
Cast: Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterston, Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Maya Rudolph, Michael K. Williams, Hong Chau, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon
Premiere: October 4, 2014 – New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 9, 2015
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
There’s a point near the end of Macdonald’s The Underground Man where Archer notices the dramatis personae around him paired off romantically like “the animals on the Ark,” and feels his own loneliness more acutely than he has before. That novel ends with Archer’s female client touching her fingers to the back of his neck as he drives them both home—not quite a romantic gesture, but an intimate one. A reader might suspect that for Archer, a touch like this is almost--almost—enough. There is something about the private eye as a lonely figure that often felt like unintentional subtext in Chandler’s novels, and gets explored more in Macdonald’s—and, indeed, in the Thomas Pynchon novel upon which Inherent Vice is based.
It’s easy to see what might draw Paul Thomas Anderson to this thematic subject matter. His Boogie Nights was, in a lot of ways, a meditation on how difficult it is to find a place in the world, and to forge a new family of sorts for yourself, when you come from an unhappy or troubled home. Punch-Drunk Love, my favorite of Anderson’s films, concerns an all-but-confirmed loner who, against long odds, ends up finding somebody who he loves, and who loves him back. In Anderson’s movies, human connection always feels like a miracle. William H. Macy’s line in Magnolia, when his new braces fail to win the heart of his braces-sporting crush, is absolutely heartbreaking: “I don't know where to put things, you know? I really do have love to give! I just don't know where to put it!” Perhaps these emotions, or this set of them, don’t constitute a new or particularly original theme: artists have been exploring how hard it is to truly feel a connection with somebody else for a long time. But count both Pynchon and Anderson among them, and the visceral yet tender approach Anderson takes to this type of material is one of the stamps of his style. It permeates Inherent Vice.
The film (and the book) are both interested in the 1972 LA beachside milieu and the contrast between straight-world cops and shaggy-haired hippies, though neither film nor book is all that concerned with arguing for one over the other; it’s basically taken for granted that some of the straights are fine, while others are fascists, and that the burnouts, basically, offer a pretty good alternative (if you can stand the slovenliness). What marks Doc Sportello isn’t his weed habit or his wardrobe so much as his basic tenderness. To wit: his concern for a former runaway that he once reunited with her father; his efforts to return a contrite runaway father to his wife and daughter; his ultimate sympathy for an unlikable detective whose lost partner has probably left him lonely for life; and his pervasive sadness around his runaway girlfriend, Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), gets him into this whole mess to begin with.
Inherent Vice is a rich movie, with a lot under its straw fedora, but what sticks—and what places it recognizably into Anderson’s filmography—is its attention to the condition of human loneliness, and the correlating condition of yearning for its relief. It is through this attention that the film becomes, in its way, as much of an ensemble piece as Boogie Nights or Magnolia despite seeming, initially, to be more of a character study like There Will Be Blood or Punch-Drunk Love; nearly all of the characters feel psychologized and well-drawn, even without a great deal of screen time. This is an interesting, well-realized work of art that shows us something new from Paul Thomas Anderson. It also happens to be beautifully shot, often quite funny, and features some remarkable acting (especially from Phoenix, who is something of a revelation as a comedic actor). Despite being pitched towards humor in a lot of places, the film is perhaps even less commercial than The Master or There Will Be Blood, on account of how off-beat its sense of humor can be. I harbored suspicions of this movie being for Anderson what the novel was for Pynchon—a more accessible work from an artist many find difficult. But I think the case might be the opposite—in Anderson's filmography this is one of the most resistant to interpretation.