Paul Thomas Anderson credibly adapts novelist Thomas Pynchon with the help of Joaquin Phoenix and other stars

The last author that comes to mind for cinematic adaptation is Thomas Pynchon. The reclusive American novelist, most famous for dense works such as Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, published Inherent Vice in 2009. The novel was an ode to a vintage Los Angeles in the guise of a drug-fueled detective story about paranoia, one of Pynchon’s more common themes. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since he deconstructed Scientology in The Master, the noted director goes on a meandering comic journey in Inherent Vice. Like most of Anderson’s films, it is more about the journey than the destination. Along for the wacky ride are Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in the cast, among other stars that turn up to help out the critically acclaimed director. While Inherent Vice may ultimately lack substance, the stylish retro film is worth seeing.

The setting is a groovy Los Angeles in 1970. Private investigator “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a doper in the parlance of Inherent Vice. He’s a dirty hippy up against the FBI, the LAPD, a sinister group of dentists, Nazi bikers, an entity only known as the Golden Fang, and any other crazy characters that may hinder his investigation. Doc is relaxing with some marijuana when his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) shows up out of the blue. She has a wild story to tell Doc about her current boyfriend, a wealthy real estate mogul known as Mickey Wolfmann. Shasta Fay soon disappears in a tangled web of connections that Doc slowly begins to unravel in his peculiar investigative style.

Crossing Doc’s path are a colorful bunch of characters. Lt. Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is the LAPD officer that keeps Doc in line. There is a former tenor sax player played by Owen Wilson working undercover. Reese Witherspoon appears as one of Doc’s flames, a prim and proper D.A. that likes unwinding with the hippy detective. Surrounding Joaquin Phoenix is a recognizably huge ensemble featuring actors like Martin Short and Benicio Del Toro.

There are few auteurs left in Hollywood but Paul Thomas Anderson can definitely be counted in their ranks. Inherent Vice is a different kind of ambitious undertaking than he’s tackled in the past. He follows fairly closely to Pynchon’s novel while striving to create an entirely new sub-genre, retro hippy detective noir. Using a killer soundtrack and nods to classic 1970’s cinematography, Anderson crosses Altman’s The Long Goodbye with Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, not to mention a nod to The Big Lebowski along the way. In his typical filmmaking style meshing dozens of characters, the dense narrative is a psychedelic trip through the paranoid mindset of druggies in 1970 California.

… the plot picks up some bizarre tangents almost as cryptic as anything in a Thomas Pynchon novel

Inherent Vice would collapse under its ridiculousness if not for Joaquin Phoenix. His Doc is the kind of affable, relaxed protagonist we can’t help as an audience to pull for in the end. All he wants to do is find his missing ex-girlfriend and smoke some dope. In his way is Bigfoot, the necessary counterpart to Doc’s loose brand of detective skills. The byzantine story of Doc’s investigation is really an excuse for him to meet all these wacky characters along the way.

There is a lot of funny stuff in Inherent Vice. One wishes Paul Thomas Anderson had reined in his impulses and trimmed some of the fat. The two-and-a-half hour movie could have been shorter; the plot picks up some bizarre tangents almost as cryptic as anything in a Thomas Pynchon novel. What works on the literary page is not necessarily the stuff of great cinematic storytelling.

Inherent Vice is a madcap, entertaining ride with likable characters. Some may lose their way within the film if they aren’t engaged by Doc’s hippy antics and peculiarities. Paul Thomas Anderson delivers another complex film with much to recommend about it, though some movie fans may loathe his dense narrative storytelling and layered approach. It is a gritty, quirky epic about drugs and paranoia.

Movie ★★★★☆

One of them probably didn't make it @ 20:08

Part and parcel of Inherent Vice’s rich atmosphere is its beautiful, nearly vintage-feeling cinematography. Cinematographer Robert Elswit and director Paul Thomas Anderson have crafted an earthy tone to their retro hippy detective noir with palpable 35mm film texture and grain. Warner Bros. delivers an excellent film transfer from a digital intermediate with pleasing detail and visual attitude. It revels in the film’s era of the 1970s, striking a nice balance between modern film definition and a retro aesthetic.

The 148-minute main feature is spread over a BD-50 in a fairly strong AVC video encode. Averaging 24.94 Mbps, the 1080P video has solid grain reproduction that finely replicates the film’s grittier moments. It is presented at its intended theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, featuring a bevy of tracking shots and tighter close-ups. Inherent Vice is one of Anderson’s most intimately-shot films. Expect unfiltered detail in the finer close-ups. A hint of aliasing can be seen in a couple of shots due to digital composites inserted into the background.

Inherent Vice has mature, sophisticated 35mm cinematography which has become an increasingly rare bird in a Hollywood infatuated with the latest digital tools. It’s a different kind of eye candy than typical demo material. What Inherent Vice lacks in ultimate sharpness and clarity is made up for by density to its black levels, a lovely color palette that screams classic cinema, and an appropriate setting for its period.

Video ★★★★☆

Inherent Vice features music composed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame and a few choice songs such as a brilliant scene set to Neil Young’s Harvest. It is a stellar accompaniment to this film’s drug-fueled ethos and retro feel, moody and joyous in all the right spots. The soundtrack might actually work better than the film itself. The audio is presented in a fairly standard 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless mix with excellent dynamic range. There is a distinct emphasis on mid-bass in the EQ choices. Decent channel separation leads to a number of specific cues in the spacious sound design, including some surprising pans. The music is top shelf and the overall audio design smacks of a high-end production.

Optional subtitles display in a white font. They include English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Lossy dubs include French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks at 640 kbps.

Audio ★★★★☆

The special features are somewhat befuddling for such an accomplished director as Paul Thomas Anderson. We get four “special” trailers, presumably put together by Anderson himself. They are a cut above the ordinary promotional trailer, but their tantalizing glimpses of alternate shots and deleted material tease more than satisfy.

This combo pack also includes a DVD version and an UltraViolet digital copy in HDX, redeemable through VUDU or Flixster. First pressings should also include a slipcover with stylish cover art.

Los Paranoias (01:59 in HD) – A trailer that recaps the movie’s story.

Shasta Fay (01:11 in HD) – The most interesting thing about this trailer is that it features new narration and footage not actually in the film.

The Golden Fang (02:11 in HD) – Who or what is the Golden Fang?

Everything In This Dream (05:49 in HD) – This is the most substantial special feature, an extended/alternate version of a scene actually in the film.

Extras ★★☆☆☆


Click on the images below for full-resolution 1080P screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. The images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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