Virtues and Inherent Vices

Every good director has a film like Inherent Vice. This film is Paul Thomas Anderson’s way of saying “I’m a good filmmaker, I know how to make a good movie, now here is my proof that I also know a lot about cinematic history.”

Inherent Vice takes us through a wide range of cinematic conventions, genres, and styles. It starts in a neo-noir setting as Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is hired as a personal investigator for multiple people. This entire storyline of Doc as an under-the-radar PI, steers the film to be told through the male gaze as we follow him through a police-less crime-filled world, uses all of the conventions of the classic Film Noir era.

This film is a neo-noir, but it simultaneously uses techniques from a multitude of other film eras. The drug use and technicolor shots, huge neon signs and party scenes with over-the-top wardrobes and dances, all make it a pastiche of 1970s and 1980s films. Even the language is eclectic and composed of different slang and patterns from all of the stereotypes we’ve seen in American  history. Inherent Vice aims to mix together many of the tropes from the 1950s through the early 2000s, bringing in a wide range of cinematic conventions.

On top of his use of common clichés, Anderson also references specific films to also build our trust in him as a knowledgeable filmmaker. Inherent Vice is incredibly similar to The Big Lebowski, because of its use of pastiche, but also in very particular scenes:.some of the most resounding images in Lebowski are of his bleak moments alone at home, then contrasted by drug-induced fantasies like a psychedelic dream sequence about bowling. Inherent Vice offers almost the same scenes, going from the vacant, smoke-filled PI office to more vibrant and unrealistic party and sex scenes.

This is how these directors are, in a sense, proving their knowledge of film. The Coen brothers and Anderson go through film history to play with genre expectations, twist filmic conventions, and expand on some of the developments that cinema has made throughout the years. In doing this, they are making a statement that the understanding of film is crucial to the art of making movies. They are saying that good directors know film and have studied cinema enough to understand its tropes, which highlights the importance of film studies.

No Altman fan would be able to sit through Inherent Vice without being reminded of The Long Goodbye. If you took a scene from the latter film and placed it in the middle of Anderson’s new movie, nobody would notice. The wardrobe, shot set-ups, and even specific images (both films have scenes on the shore) are almost interchangeable.

Anderson’s film is a work of art even past all of the overt references to films and glorified conventions. Each shot is meticulously calculated, and the frames are filled with so many period-specific details and brilliant foreground-background actions that each scene is a cinematographic masterpiece.

The downside of this film, however, is its hard-to-follow storyline. Though we are guided by Doc, we go through so many characters and anecdotes that it’s very easy to get lost. I found myself forgetting what was actually happening and just paying attention to the visuals of the film, which is likely what Anderson did at times, too.

My final theory is that filmgoers who want an intrinsically, appealing visual tale will be pleased, but audience members seeking a concrete story and character development will leave less than fulfilled. Overall, though, it’s worth seeing regardless of your film preferences. 4/5 stars.

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