The Muralist Vision Of Paul Thomas Anderson: Inherent Vice And The Cinematic Traditions of Los Angeles


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Inherent Vice didn’t make it far in the 2015 Oscars race, having gained only two very minor nominations (of course, as every member of the film community acknowledges, it’s an honour just to be nominated although you’re more likely to get laid or have the late night scribbles on the back of a Polo Lounge napkin green-lit by a major studio if you get one of the little golden guys. But that’s another thing. Entirely.).

Josh Brolin did tie for Best Supporting Actor (with Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher) at the prestigious Central Ohio Film Critics’ Association awards. So someone from the production does have a trophy to show for all their hard work, even if they only get to gaze upon its luminous presence every other week and maybe a little longer when Ruffalo is off doing Avengers sequels.

I should stop right here for a quick admission: I’m a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson. If ever there’s a theme park ride based on a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I’ll be first in line. Especially if it’s Boogie Nights and roller skates are involved. But that’s another thing. Entirely

Until now, my favourite Anderson outing was There Will Be Blood (2007), a movie that was just so impressive on first viewing and gets better as time goes on. Granted, I’d never been much of a Daniel Day-Lewis fan (although he was one of best things about Gangs Of New York, another favourite). However, it was Day-Lewis’ titanic performance in There Will Be Blood that nudged him several points higher in my estimations.

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin
Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin

Ditto for Joaquin Phoenix. Maybe it’s just a latent animosity that stems from having a name that’s so needlessly difficult to pronounce (what happened to the good old days when actors would go out of their way to create audience-friendly names? Whether they were born with something puzzlingly unusual – we’re looking at you, Marion Morrison – or just plain vanilla, they could be transformed into a Rip Torn or Tab Hunter?).

No, Joaquin doesn’t so much trip off the tongue than plummet screaming to the ground (note to self: it appears to be pronounced WAW – KEEM but please correct me if I’m wrong). As for his acting chops, I’ve never quite understood the adoration.

In Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phoenix is a revelation. He’s so comprehensively immersed in the character that it’ll be difficult to believe him in anything else. That, my friends, is what acting is all about.

I generally don’t write about current release cinema. I leave that to the bulk of the blogging universe. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, a movie I know will stay with me a long time, I’ll make an exception. It helps that it encompasses two of my favourite things – detective stories and the history of Los Angeles.

Katherine Waterston and a fetching 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz
Katherine Waterston and a fetching 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz

Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an idealistic hippie stoner who, inexplicably, holds a private detective license. He lives in a scummy apartment in an equally scummy LA beachside community. Most importantly, deep down inside, Sportello is nothing more and nothing less than a reincarnated Philip Marlow.

Like Marlowe, he’s a hopeless (and occasionally helpless) romantic, a tilter at windmills, a champion of lost causes. The story begins when his lost love, Shasta, she of the long limbs and evocatively Southern Californian name, reappears with a plea to help her current lover, a wealthy married real estate mogul.

The time is 1970. The Summer of Love got the ultimate Dear John letter with Manson and Altamont the year before. Optimism and the hope for a better world has faded like reefer smoke on a Santa Ana. It’s a new decade and, despite the best efforts of Sportello and his ilk, big changes are in store.

On the mean streets that Sportello wanders, he must dodge skateboarders, neo-Nazis, an angry sociopathic cop who may or may not be his best friend, and Shasta, who maintains a vice-like grip on his heart. The cases he pursues fold back on themselves like Escher staircases. He’s beaten regularly, never paid, hardly accorded thanks. But he continues doing what he does because it’s all he knows. And the world, or at least Los Angeles, is a slightly better place because of it.

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

The mystery of Shasta’s missing boyfriend isn’t that important and logic really plays no part. It’s the figures in the landscape, the people he encounters along the way. It’s what they bring to him rather than how he addresses their problems.

Inherent Vice is another section of a much larger canvas slowing being assembled by Paul Thomas Anderson. From Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to Punch Drunk Love (2002) and on to There Will Be Blood (drawn from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, and loosely based on oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, who dotted the landscape of early 20th century LA with thousands of oil derricks), Anderson’s larger intentions seem to lie in creating a grand narrative of Los Angeles, its life and times, on par with a Diego Rivera mural.

In doing so, he’s contributing to a much grander artistic tradition; Hollywood (and, by association, LA) and the film industry grew up together. They are intertwined by far more than just geographic proximity. Inherent Vice (and, to varying degrees, There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights), stands alongside the very best depictions of the city – LA Confidential (1997), Day Of the Locust (1975), Chinatown (1974), Robert Altman’s unconventional interpretation of The Long Goodbye (1973), and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

With Inherent Vice, the traditional narrative stream is both enlivened and complicated by two factors, the most obvious being its LA noir overtones. The next is that it’s based on a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Russel Crowe (left) and Guy Pierce (centre) in LA Confidential
Russel Crowe  and Guy Pierce in LA Confidential

I have no idea of the source material and would barely know where to find Pynchon in a bookstore if I didn’t have a few rather obvious clues to work with. I’m not a literature kind of guy, preferring genre anytime. It’s a survival thing. I’ve already died once and have no intention of being bored to death so, when that trusty reference resource, Wikipedia, says that Pynchon is noted “for his dense and complex novels”, I’m already reaching for the nitroglycerin tablets. Just in case.

On the other hand, I’ve been told Pynchon (note to self: PIN – CHIN) delights in inside jokes, popular music references, sex, drugs, and freaks, all thrown against the wall like a monkey with a handful of shit. Some sticks, some doesn’t. He’s beginning to sound like my kinda guy.

Then, invariably, someone, somewhere, compares Pynchon with James Joyce and I recall the fateful words of Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!” So I’m back to square one, literature-wise. I’ll just have to be content with Pynchon on film. This may well be the perfect example of not wanting to read the book in case it spoils the movie.

I’ll admit Inherent Vice has its challenges. It pays not to anticipate too eagerly a conventional three-act format, no neatly-wrapped mystery with the guilty party named, shamed and brought to justice before the closing credits. Rather, the mystery lies in the journey (and in Sportello himself, in a Carlos Castaneda kinda way). It’s the story of Los Angeles as much as the temporary travails of the characters who bump around on the screen.

Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye
Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye

The exceptional supporting cast is a joy in itself. Josh Brolin in a man-mountain police detective with anger management issues who alternates between Portello’s worst enemy and saviour.

Special mention to Katherine Waterston as Shasta, Portello’s Guinevere in a black Cadillac Biarritz convertible. This is very much her breakthrough role; up till now, the acting accolades in her family have been heaped on her father, Sam, better recognised these days for his 16-season run as ADA (and later DA) Jack McCoy on television’s Law & Order (although also fondly remembered as Nick Carraway opposite Robert Redford in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby).

Like Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson also has an appreciation for in-jokes and musical references. In a scene featuring his real-life wife, Maya Rudolph, the soundtrack swells with the coloratura soprano of Minnie Riperton on Les Fleurs (Google is your friend. I’m not here to provide all the answers.)

Is Inherent Vice a genuine masterpiece or a “coulda been, shoulda been” of the sort I generally love? Only time will tell. In the meantime, repeated viewings uncover details you may not have noticed before (much like a prog rock gem will still offer up undiscovered facets decades after it was first relegated to the remainder bin).

In all, it’s fair to say that Inherent Vice is a worthy addition to Paul Thomas Anderson’s evolving cinematic mural. And, at least to me, it’s as enthralling and intricate as Chinatown or The Long Goodbye.

Words © David Latta

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Author: davidlatta

David Latta is an award-winning editor, journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in scores of Australian and international newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Courier-Mail and Travel & Leisure. During the last two decades, he has largely concentrated on travel and tourism, editing more than a dozen B2B titles and major conference and incentive travel publications. He is the author of critically-acclaimed books on such subjects as architecture and design, Australian history, literary criticism and music. These titles include Lost Glories: A Memorial To Forgotten Australian Buildings, Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, and Australian Country Music. He is currently working on a book about the nightclub scene in 1970s Sydney as well as a sprawling thriller set in Sydney during World War II. As an arts commentator, humourist and trend-spotter, his opinions are sought across the gamat of traditional and social media.

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