The Academy Awards nominations for achievement in motion pictures arts and sciences have been announced, and the usual hand wringing and naysaying has commenced. The Academy does excellent work throughout the year, but their winter show always attracts the most attention, money, and opinions.
Although the list of 60 nominees is an impressive one, one of the aggravating aspects again lies in the Motion Picture Category, where voters are allotted 10 slots to choose the best theatrically released movies of the year. Four years ago, the category expanded from five nominees to 10, and for one reason or another, voters have consistently failed to fill out all 10 vacancies in the past three years: eight nominees for 2014, nine for 2013, and nine for 2012. An odd choice considering that these last three years have seen stellar releases, easily allowing for 10 nominations.
The one missing from this year’s selection is not just one of the best from 2014, but possibly the best: Paul Thomas Anderson’s strange and ethereal detective story, Inherent Vice. Based on the 2009 novel by reclusive author Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice follows private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is sucked into the scheming and psychedelic world of 1970 Los Angeles. If the ’60s held promise for the counter-culture to take over and right the wrongs of the ’50s “square” mentality, then 1970 is where things feel apart. The Southland is still reeling from the 1969 Manson Family Murders, and peace, love, and understanding are flying right out the door in favor of addiction recovery, astrology, quick fixes, and money, money, money.
Setting the story in motion is Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who appears at Doc’s Gordita Beach (a stand-in for Manhattan Beach) apartment asking for help. Like all great detectives, Doc is never totally innocent, corrupt, or sober. He has to take everything with a grain of salt and a bemused eye, but when the one good thing walks back through his door, Doc springs into action—or at least as much action as a stoner can.
Doc’s assignment: track down Shasta’s new boyfriend, billionaire land developer, Mickey Woolfman. Doc’s investigation takes him from the lovely and charming beach city to the flatlands, where progress is the name of the game, and Doc fights his way through sex parlors, Nazis, spiritual cults, dentist syndicates, drug rings, and the worst of them all, the LAPD. The tie that binds is Golden Fang, a drug syndicate that is getting in the land-developing business and will take LA from the hippie den into the high-octane, money-driven city it now is. Quite a lot for one shamus who can barely keep his head straight.
But, explaining the plot of Inherent Vice as a narrative device is futile. Inherent Vice— like most detective stories—is not concerned with plot or story. This is not a puzzle to be solved but a shaggy dog story full of tangents, quips, and diversions. We should never let understanding get in the way of enjoyment, and Inherent Vice is a greatly enjoyable picture.
Dorothy Parker once described Los Angeles as “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city,” and Anderson—as did Pynchon and Raymond Chandler before him—embrace that geography. Anderson, and cinematographer Robert Elswit, photograph the square and angular design of mid-century architecture found in shopping malls alongside the ramshackle beachfront communities just begging to be washed out into the sea. Standing square detectives with crew cuts (Josh Brolin—perfectly cast) next to Doc’s shaggy, mutton-chopped PI shows mutual resentment and admiration. Time and time again, Anderson and Elswit find perfect examples of LA’s dichotomy: a scene where a doublewide set in a dirty and dusty wasteland is as colorful as can be inside; just check out that carpet on the wall. No one word that can encompass all of LA, but with Inherent Vice, Anderson adds a couple of crucial sentences to its definition.
Yet, locations do not make the movie, faces do, and at the center of Inherent Vice is one of the best: Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix’s Doc may stand on the shoulders of Philip Marlowe and The Dude, but he stands on his own two feet none-the-less and creates a character that—to borrow from Hunter S. Thompson’s introduction for Oscar Zeta Acosta’s novel Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo—is best described as, “one of God’s own prototypes—a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production. He was too weird to live and too rare to die…” Words that apply as equally to Doc as they do Phoenix. Not nominating Inherent Vice for a Best Picture is a shame, but not nominating Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor in 2014 or any year is downright foolish.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Written for the screen and directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon
Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Josh Brolin, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, Hong Chau, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short
Warner Brothers, Rated R, Running Time 148 minutes, Released December 9, 2014.