Inherent Vice

Not hallucinating

inherent-vice-640x360PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a novel written well into the age of irony and meta narrative, voluntarily entangles itself in genre trappings, and centers around a hippie version of Sherlock Holmes who simply cannot gel with the world in which he insists upon staying.  Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is never without joint in hand and never has a clear thought.  He misses his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), but doesn’t quite know why they broke up, and doesn’t quite want to be together again either.  His attempts at hardboiled dialogue quickly devolve into non sequitur.  His professional rivalry with oafish cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) consistently proves disastrous for him.  A DA with whom he’s having an affair (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t trust his word because he’s stoned all the time.  Following a bold escape from white supremacist captors, a hand-off that should be climactic (complete with period cars parked at a safe distance whilst the skeptical strangers walk coolly toward one another) ends with a teenage girl flipping him off.  Like Doc, the film plods, meanders, and never forms any sense of direction, form, or anything that resembles a clear thought.  Doc pines for purpose but allows himself to drift, surrounded by people who inhabit rigid roles, and even when he actually does something (which is only ever in reaction to something that happens to him), he seems to resist genuine progress.

The film begins like the archetypal private-eye story: with a beautiful “dame” walking in and putting the reluctant PI on the toughest case of his career.  But the plot doesn’t take quite as long as The Big Sleep to become murky and incoherent because Inherent Vice does it on purpose.  Some things are resolved.  Some things are deliberately not.  Plenty of people – Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Aunt Reet (Jeannie Berlin), and others – are there for no reason or do not accomplish what appears to be their one purpose (at least as far as Doc is concerned).  The characters are fun to spend time with in a Jackie Brown sort of way, though a first viewing of this film isn’t necessarily for purposes of finding out what happens, as the plot and story become extraneous fairly early on.  Anything that could be exciting, romantic, or conclusive is subverted – Doc’s relationships with Shasta and Penny, Doc’s big shootout with thugs, even the involvement of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who narrates the story and whose face is seen plenty of times, is never defined in any clear way as a part of this story or a character of her own: who is she to Doc?  Who is she narrating to?  Why would anyone care, given the nature of the story’s structure?

Characters are enveloped in thick white-gray light so that the film is always wrapped in a sort of haze, which not only mimics Doc’s pot-addled mind, but also makes everything seem realistic and down-to-earth when the goal of the characters (read: main cast – Doc, Shasta, Hope [Jena Malone], Bigfoot, Mickey [Eric Roberts]) is to get somewhere that isn’t real or to grasp something that no longer exists – Doc’s fantasy life of being a badass private-eye on a scenic coast; Shasta’s seemingly perfect life with business mogul Mickey (who has become so sick of his life of corruption that he joins a cult where he doesn’t have to think about it any more); Hope’s insistence that her life of heroin-fueled debauchery with husband Coy (Owen Wilson), who has also run away (to become a snitch for several dangerous organizations), can be reconciled into a happy family life; Bigfoot’s bravado and conservative bullshit about being a respected cop when he’s actually whipped by his wife and moonlighting as an extra on Adam 12 and doing commercials in which he’s forced to wear a fake afro; even Clancy Charlock’s (Michelle Sinclair) hope that her no-goodnik husband (whose corpse we saw two hours ago and never shed a tear over) is alive. Closeups of characters involve unflattering framing and light that makes them appear as real people with disheveled hair, natural movements, and nary an airbrushed mole.  There’s natural beauty in the tiny moments, when Doc and company are not reaching for the ephemeral.

The film’s roadblocks are all in the choices made by its director, and maybe its purpose altogether (i.e. its self-conscious lack thereof).  A film should not be made with the intention of becoming a misunderstood cult classic.  Nearly all of its most positive reviews by respected critics involve the phrases “a film for film lovers” or “a film that demands comparison to [this] and [that].”  Being derivative is one thing, but you cannot say those things and then call a film “unique” and “original” in the same breath, much less when it’s based on a novel and so desperately (and here’s where I compare it to something) xeroxes Coen Brothers material.  Yes, nostalgia is a big theme in the film, perhaps its strongest.  But nostalgia shouldn’t be the one thing that causes us to 1) see a film, and 2) get so precious about it – similar to actual memories.

Worst, maybe, is Anderson’s continued misuse (and the word “use” is sadly appropriate here) of the female cast.  Where his last film had Philip Seymour Hoffman singing an active and impressive version of “Amsterdam Maid” while dozens of nude young (and old, none in between) women bounced around like decorations, this one has plenty of attempted characterization of women with one common trait: they all sit around waiting for a man (or multiple men) to save them.  But look at Shasta: she’s the one who doesn’t seem to need any of this.  She’s the film’s most liberated soul.  Until, of course, she returns to Doc’s apartment, strips down, and nakedly monologues in a several-minute-long single shot about how she’s in fact a much worse kind of person, objectifies and verbally degrades herself while rubbing her foot along Doc’s crotch, and then allows herself to be spanked and sexually ravaged.  I’m not sure which I prefer, if I have to prefer one: a film with practically no women (There Will Be Blood) or one wherein the women debase themselves at the whim of the men before and behind the camera (and wherein their greatest fantasy is living a life that involves actually making choices).  Also note: the fact that the actress has stated that the scene did not bother her doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t problematic as a whole or that it doesn’t perpetuate serious issues in our culture.

So yeah.  Inherent Vice is nostalgic, deliberately uncomfortable, and fun to try to puzzle out, but when it “says” something, it says the wrong thing, and much like its protagonist, who never knows what’s being said or whether he’s actually saying much of anything, the film itself isn’t too clear about whether its makers understand exactly what they are saying.  It doesn’t take repeat viewings to figure that out.

Inherent Vice (2014); based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon; screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, and Jena Malone. 

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Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

The Master

Your biggest hint: the paint thinner

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely acclaimed new drama, is actually not so much a film as it is a series of well-acted scenes that could all be from different Oscar-grade movies.  The story is nonexistent, none of the details matter, and the characters never grow, change, or reveal very much about themselves.

The action centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, no direction, and evidently severe PTSD.  After losing several jobs due to drunken assaults and other bad behavior, Freddie becomes a drifter and happens upon the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder and self-proclaimed Master of a cult-like following known only as the Cause – whether or not this is an allegory for Scientology is a question best posed to those who follow the latter.  Dodd, enjoying Freddie’s homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), allows him to stay onboard and become a member of the Cause .  In one of the film’s best scenes, which goes on for something close to ten minutes, Dodd makes Freddie participate in an exercise known as Processing, in which Freddie must reveal terribly personal secrets about himself while not blinking his eyes.  Though Freddie passes these tests, the other members of the cause, most notably Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), are apprehensive about Freddie’s usefulness to the movement, as well as fearful of his unpredictable, violent behavior.  Peggy, the effective second-in-command of the Cause, tells Freddie he must quit “boozing” if he’s going to stay with the group, and he accepts this ultimatum without intention of actually quitting.  Eventually, one of Dodd’s sons (Jesse Plemons) passively remarks that his father is a fraud and improvising the tenants of his religion.  Freddie, though, defends Dodd’s honor and assaults anyone who speaks against him, including police, who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license.  Freddie reveals that he abandoned his sweetheart when he left for war, and pines for her.

Why does Freddie hang around the Cause?  Does he really believe in it?  These important questions are never explored.  The entire first half hour of the movie could be cut, because all of the information given is revealed later – Freddie is angry, Freddie is drunk, Freddie is sexually starved – a lesson I often give to fiction students about where a story actually begins.  Many of the scenes are populated with very long shots, which I normally love for various reasons specific to the films that make use of them, but here, they seem not only obligatory, but indulgent.  Why is this film over two hours?  A question I’m sure the several folks who walked out during our showing also had.

Phoenix and Hoffman deliver two of the best male performances of the year, as well as two of the best performances of their respective careers.  These characters are fun to watch together, but despite the film’s dubious marketing, their interactions never amount to the buddy-story we really want.  Phoenix’s Freddie is sad, pathetic, and sympathetic when the film needs him to be, and Hoffman carries Dodd with all of the declamatory hubris we might associate with folks like L. Ron Hubbard.  The issue, however, is movement: the film remains constantly locked in place.  Here’s a scene where Dodd gives Freddie a test.  Here’s a scene where Freddie completes the test.  There is no scene before, in between, or after that gives the slightest inkling about what Freddie was supposed to learn during the test, whether he learned it, whether he believes he learned anything, nor whether either man truly believed the test was necessary.

Does Dodd even believe in the Cause, or is he a pure charlatan?  This would be an incredibly vital question in the story this film claims to tell, but only in two points is it touched on: in the above scene with Dodd’s son, and a later scene in which a Cause member (Laura Dern) politely points out a contradiction in Dodd’s work.  The situation is never explored further, nor does the Cause suffer for it; in fact, Dodd is able to open a “school” in England once his second book becomes a success.  You may be thinking, okay, the film is making a point about charlatans and frauds getting away with lies and deceit.  No – that’s Arbitrage, a film with a coherent structure and several clear goals.  I’ve heard The Master praised as “deliberately misshapen.”  No – you’re thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which, even with their heavy stylization and non-chronological narratives, still have a defined structure and a story arc.  The Master plays like two hours and fifteen minutes’ worth of short films featuring the same three characters.  This isn’t Anderson’s first swing of the bat, of course – he received an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, another very long and indulgent film with a hubristic male lead, but that was a film containing only one story and an effective (if nonsensical) ending.  Here, Anderson delivers another movie smeared with Oscar gloss, but nothing underneath.

The Master also falls into an old trap: as male filmmakers get older, the women in their films get younger and more naked.  I could not have counted the breasts in this movie if I’d tried.  A wonderful scene featuring Hoffman singing an old roving song is blindsided when Freddie imagines every woman in the room naked – for several minutes of screen time.  The women are dancing, bouncing, and playing instruments, so this leads to some very deliberate imagery.  Scenes like this, along with the fact that the one principle female character – Peggy – is always seen with a child (either in her arms or in her belly) gives the film that sexist tang every male film critic (who, by the way, are the only ones giving this film the astounding praise it’s received) is quick to give a pass if the overall film and performance quality are on the up and up – a dangerous pattern that helps perpetuate a cycle of anti-feminism consistently dismissed as innocuous if the filmmaker claims to be doing a “period piece.”

Here’s a lesson in avoiding indulgent storytelling: if your own work is getting you hard, you have revising to do.

The Master (2012); written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.