"Everything is as it should be."

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Inherent Vice : A Review?


Inherent Vice, directed  and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, is an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix and boasts supporting performances from Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon among many others.

At this point in writing a review I will usually give a brief synopsis of the film's story. As I hopelessly stare at this ever ravenous and judgmental computer screen, with it's incessant hunger for words, wisdom and insight, I realize I am intellectually barren on this topic, hollow at my core, devoid of even the most primitive capacity to explain the labyrinthine plot of Inherent Vice. I have scoured my brain, even put on the complete Pink Floyd collection in search of inspiration, but to no avail. To paraphrase Ned Flander's beatnik parents on The Simpsons, who didn't know how to discipline young Ned, "I've tried nothing and I'm all out of ideas!"

The revelation that has dawned on me is that this is not really a 'review', but would more accurately be described as a 'viewers guide'.  Inherent Vice is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by rolling papers. I have seen it twice already and it wasn't until well after the second viewing did things start to take shape for me in regards to figuring this film out. What I hope to do in writing this 'guide' is not explain the film to you, I think that is an impossibility, since my experience of the film will most assuredly be different from yours, but instead of explaining, I hope to help prepare you for your experience of the film. 

Inherent Vice is a film that is like a delicious Duncan Hines yellow cake with chocolate frosting, so dense and layered that it can be exquisitely delectable but at the same time down right overwhelming. The film is really three layers/films in one, if not many more. The key to watching Inherent Vice is to choose which version, or level, of the film you think you will most enjoy and gorge on it from there.  Here are the three scrumptious layers that are most apparent to me. Mmmmmmmm, yummy layers.

1. The Surface Level. On the surface level, Inherent Vice is a stoner mystery comedy. Think Cheech and Chong meet Chinatown. Personally, I don't get into stoner films, they just aren't my cup of tea, or drug of choice, or whatever metaphor you'd be more comfortable with. So I didn't appreciate the film on this level a great deal, although I admit it is pretty fun trying to figure out what is actually real and what is a just a hallucination in the mind of Joaquin Phoenix' character "Doc". A lot of people do dig stoner comedies though, and if you do, you may very well really like Inherent Vice just as an entertaining, fun movie and nothing more. If that is the case with you, then dive right in and enjoy. If not, then head to level two.

2. A Political/Social Commentary. Dig a little deeper with Inherent Vice and you will find a meditation on American corruption, fascism, and the exploitation of the individual and collective psyche by government and corporate interests through marketing and manipulation. On this level, it is all about the co-opting of the sixties liberation and freedom movements, both personal and political, by the establishment. As you watch, take note of how nothing is ever what it seems on the surface, like the dental conglomerate that is really an Asian drug cartel, or the drug-addled-hippie-musician who is really a spy for Nixon. Everything is something other than what it appears, every person and every group has a hidden nefarious motive at the core of their actions. So, don't have a freak out man!! Remember...paranoia is just a heightened sense of awareness!!

Level two is also riddled with political and social symbolism. As a prime example of level two symbolism, take note of one scene as an example,  in which Josh Brolin's "Bigfoot" character, the symbol of the establishment, kicks in Doc's door and then gobbles down marijuana by the handful as an intimidating show of power, which is really an allegory for the usurping of marijuana culture by the establishment in the form of legalization. Weed is now 'officially' integrated, and by being so legitimized, it loses it's mysterious power. Weed has now been neutered as a political statement and muted as a sacrament for the counter-culture and a symbol of their anti-authoritarianism and rebelliousness.

If you have four hours to kill (in one hour increments)… a really great primer on the exploitation of the individual and collective psyche by those in power, and how they manipulate through marketing, is a series of documentaries from the BBC titled, The Century of the Self. It is about Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays and his creation of of the public relations industry. It is long, but it is a truly great documentary, and it really lays the groundwork for understanding the massive manipulation that unfolds on level two of Inherent Vice, and in our actual lives to this day.  Here is a link…Century of the Self. 

3. A Jungian Psychological Exploration. On level three the story of Inherent Vice is really the tale of the spiritual/psychological quest for wholeness and reunification with the Self by the bringing together of the opposites. Ok, this might be the least apparent and most inaccessible level of the three described, but I found it the most interesting. The way to understand this is to see all of the characters in the story as parts of Doc's psyche. Doc, the long haired, counter-culture hippie, and Josh Brolin's "Bigfoot", the flat-topped-square-establishmentarian, are symbolic opposites of the same coin, Doc's psyche. Shasta, Doc's ex-girlfriend, represents the Anima (feminine power) and Doc the Animus (male), with Doc trying to re-connect with the anima in order to be complete and whole. Also notice the other opposites that come together, Nazis and Jews, the Black Guerrilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood, Nixonites and hippies, etc. Another thing to keep an eye out for are the religious/spiritual symbolism, including the Christs with Uzis (no, that is not a misprint), and the Buddhas, both gatekeepers and guardians that keep Owen Wilson's character, and Mickey "Wolfmann" mentally, emotionally and psychologically hostage.

The great symbol of wholeness in the film is hiding in plain sight. It is...of all things…pizza!! Trust me, when you see pizza or hear the word pizza, pay attention. Pizza is round and is the symbol of wholeness, so when Doc, or the other characters whom are symbolic parts of his psyche, are looking for, ordering, or eating pizza, they are really searching for wholeness and reunification with the Self. Thus the eating of pizza represents the integrating of wholeness and through this synthesis with wholeness, they, and the part of Doc's psyche they personify, are healed. This is the story of level three, Doc's quest for re-connection with Self and wholeness. 

Thus ends the 'viewers guide'. Those are just some of the ways you can choose to look at the film. You will probably find much more, as the film speaks to people in the language that they can hear. I never read the Thomas Pynchon book the film is based on, so readers of that book might have a greater understanding and appreciation for the film on every level. 

Just a few quick final notes on some of the specifics of the film. First the acting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead role of Doc, and he is his usual stellar self. Phoenix' work in the last few years, especially his previous work with P.T. Anderson in The Master, has been so ingeniously brilliant it is beyond description as merely the craft of 'acting'. Phoenix' artistry is so rare and original that I cannot compare him to any other actor we've ever seen, but rather to another revolutionary artist from another form, Pablo Picasso.  Phoenix is so far out there in terms of what he brings to a role, his authenticity, originality and inventiveness that he can only be described as some sort of Picasso-esque mad genius. But beyond his obvious transcendent talent, he also brings an immense understanding and mastery of his craft and a painstakingly meticulous specificity to the details of his work. Joaquin Phoenix is as unique a talent as we have in the acting world, and he is at the height of his powers. We should all consider ourselves blessed to get to watch his work.

Josh Brolin has a supporting role and is as good as he's ever been. Brolin devours the role of "Bigfoot" like his character "Bigfoot" devours that platter of weed, or his Japanese pancakes ("MOTO PANACAKU!!"...Oh wow man, I just realized, just now, that a pancake is another round food symbol of wholeness!! Bigfoot is demanding, in the language of the east, more servings of wholeness to integrate!! Wholeness prepared and delivered by a man of the East!! Whoa….). Brolin brings an unwavering focus and intensity to "Bigfoot", which plays as both frightening and funny. Brolin can be an underrated actor, but here he shows he is the real deal when in the right role, and his performance is a key part in making Inherent Vice work.

Robert Elswit is the cinematographer on Inherent Vice, and his work is dazzling. Elswit has worked on many of P.T. Anderson's films, and his work is always exquisite, and Inherent Vice is no exception. This is the second film of note for Elswit this year, his cinematography on Nightstalker is stunning as well. It is without question that Elswit deserves not only an Oscar nomination but an Oscar win for his work in either Nightstalker or Inherent Vice. Elswit, like Phoenix, is another artist at the top of his game.

And there you have some random, scattered thoughts on the enigmatic Inherent Vice.  I can honestly tell you that I am not sure which parts of this 'review/guide' were real, and which were simply entertaining hallucinations, but I guess you'll figure that all out when you see the movie for yourself. 

I do hope you find the viewer's guide useful, but remember, those are just some of the ways to watch the film. You will probably find much more, as the film speaks to people in the language with which they can hear it, and that is it's greatest strength and a tribute to the mastery of director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson is the great filmmaker of our time, and Inherent Vice is a tribute to his complexity and the intricacy of his work. I found the film to be fascinating, I think you may too.

© 2015



Wild : A Review


Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), is a film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of self-discovery "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail". Nick Hornby adapted the book for the screen. In the story, Strayed is compelled to hike the very formidable Pacific Crest Trail from southern California up to Washington state in order to heal herself and purge her demons after the death of her mother, years of drug use and promiscuity, and a divorce. The story is told from Cheryl Strayed's perspective and follows her on her physical journey, including her mental and emotional fluctuations while on that journey, all the while peppered with flashbacks of her life leading up to the decision to trek. 

Reese Witherspoon stars in the film as Cheryl Strayed. This is the best performance of Reese Witherspoon's career, without question. It isn't easy for an actress of her status to dirty themselves up and expose themselves, both literally and figuratively, in a film like this. But she dives in head first and roles around in the muck and the mire, embracing the grit and grime of the character and her journey.  She should be applauded for her courage if nothing else, but the performance deserves applause for more than just it's courage. Witherspoon's usual appealing persona is not removed from her portrayal, but it is channelled and contained enough to give her character the right amount of vibrancy and charm that encourages us to follow her through the story without making her unreal, phony or too Hollywood. This is the 'most genuine' Witherspoon has ever felt on camera. She still maintains that trademark radiant energy of hers which made her a star, but it is sullied enough that she is able to create a  distinct, specific and conflicted character, one that we might actually come across while out in the world somewhere. Reese Witherspoon's performance is undeniably the driving force of the film, and I am sure she will receive, at the least, a well-deserved Oscar nomination. I genuinely hope that in the future she will take on more challenging roles in more interesting films like she has this year with Wild and Inherent Vice

Besides Witherspoon's performance, the most interesting aspect of the film to me, and what it does incredibly well, is to perfectly capture the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability a woman can experience out alone in a world filled with men. This is a thought I rarely, if ever, contemplate. It was such an interesting insight to me, to be able to not only understand that experience intellectually, but to actually feel it, which is a credit to both Vallee's direction and to Reese Witherspoon's powerful and appealing performance. Without the Witherspoon's trademark natural charm, there is a chance the Cheryl character would not be as easy to connect with, and that would undermine this forceful aspect of the film. The tangible feeling whenever Cheryl comes into contact with men while in the wild, is one of predator and prey. Men are the predators, with their different tactics and strategies, and Cheryl is the prey. Her vulnerability is palpable in these situations. Even if the men aren't always trying to prey upon her, she certainly feels as if they are, and the audience feels it right along with her. This was a really eye-opening and transformational experience for me watching the film. In real life, I'm a large mammal, and so I never really have that experience of vulnerability. That is not to say that I am never in the position of being prey, but it is to say, regardless of situation, I never feel like prey, but with Wild, and Reese Witherspoon's work in it in particular, I was able to have that experience. It is a credit to the filmmaker and the actress that they were able to expand my horizons in such a way that I will be able to be much more empathetic and understanding of people who have that very uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability on a much more regular basis.

Robert DeNiro in   The Mission

Robert DeNiro in The Mission

Watching Wild, I was reminded of one of my favorite films, the 1986 Roland Joffe film, The Mission, which is set in 18th century South America, where Robert DeNiro's character must carry his 'baggage', the heavy armor and weapons he used to kill his brother in a fit of jealousy, tied to his back as he hikes and climbs the Andes under the supervision of Jesuit missionaries. The carrying of the weapons on the arduous climb is his penance for his sins and the vehicle for his spiritual transformation. Wild is not as great a film as The Mission, but it is a good film with similar lessons to teach. Strayed makes a less arduous but equally dramatic pilgrimage as DeNiro's character does in The Mission, and carries all of her literal and figurative 'luggage' with her on the way. The lesson Strayed learns on the journey is to slowly, but surely, release the emotional baggage from her past, and to free herself of the burdens her mistakes and misdeeds weigh upon her. As in The Mission, Strayed's journey in Wild is for spiritual transformation and psychological catharsis.

The power of a journey or quest, whether it be for wisdom, penance, transformation or catharsis, resonates with us all. At one time or another we have all had to make the journey, be it actual or symbolic, or more likely, both. Whether that journey be out of the womb or the slow march to the tomb, or anything in between, we evolve a little or a lot with every step we take on it. Mankind's myths speak to the universality of the power of the journey, whether it be the quest for the holy grail, Homer's odyssey, or Christ's tortuous march to Golgotha. The 'journey myth' speaks to us on levels we can both enjoy as entertainment and yet also psychologically in ways we are not able to intellectualize, verbalize or quite grasp . The 'journey myth' takes hold in, and works upon, both the collective and our personal sub-conscious. The history of film is riddled with the journey myth in the form of  the 'road picture', from Hope and Crosby to Easy Rider to Rainman to Little Miss Sunshine to name but a few. Wild is not quite to the level of those films, but it is a road picture that takes us off the road and into the wild and out of our, and Reese Witherspoon's, comfort zone. It is far from a perfect film, but it is a journey well worth your time, if for no other reason than to contemplate your own transformational journey, and to see Reese Witherspoon at her most genuine.

© 2015