Paul Thomas Anderson did not need Joaquin Phoenix to be brilliant, but he films Phoenix brilliantly.
After the evident success of Phantom Thread, nominated Best Picture, and before the release of the next movie starring Joaquin Phoenix – You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay -, I thought it would be nice to take a look at the earlier association between director Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix. The duo’s first project was the sublime The Master in 2012 – also starring the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman. The movie might be the best work of both Anderson as a director and Phoenix as an actor, and Anderson says it’s his favorite work.
For Inherent Vice (2014), the second Paul Thomas Anderson/Joaquin Phoenix movie association, Anderson is highly unpredictable, alway going where we don’t expect him to. Boogie Nights (1997), The Will Be Blood (2007), Phantom Thread (2017), it is hard to find any stylistic or other correlation, beside the fact that they were all Oscar nominated.
“He’s the greatest screen actor of his generation, but also a reluctant celebrity,” wrote Bret Easton Ellis about Phoenix for the New York Times in a article titled “The Weird Brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix.” This is one of the rare interviews that seems to have truly captured Joaquin Phoenix’s personality. The actor reveals the fragile soul of the characters he embodies; poor guys, thugs, cops. He gives them all a tragic grace and a melancholic side. But what he is, above all, is fair. He plays fair, he is in tune with his characters; he’s not doing too much, or to the contrary, too little; he is simply fair. But then we encounter a second dimension of Phoenix: the madness. We leave the fairness for the incredibly twisted, the tense. The scene of the prison in The Master where he smashed the toilets, and when he ends up tearing the sink off the wall in Walk The Line, neither was scripted, it was all Phoenix.
The authenticity of his performances is probably enhanced by the fact that the actor stays very private about his personal life, and maintains his mystery. We wonder who is really Joaquin Phoenix, which leaves more room for his characters. He is famously known for being hard to interview, constantly lying, making things up when he is not interested, and clearly demonstrating that he would rather be anywhere else than there doing a promotional appearance. His reluctance for celebrity and his attitude, the way he plays with media, could well be perceived as arrogance; he is in fact the contrary. Phoenix, during the rare times when he opened up, revealed himself as more of an insecure artist. He is, for example, unable to watch his own performances because he is too self-aware. He is the anti-hero of Hollywood.
Inherent Vice is a drug infused, LA neo-noir, mystery film taking place in 1970 and adapted from the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon is considered an “LA writer” and Anderson did succeed in reflecting LA’s early seventies atmosphere. It is the kind of movie you either really like or really don’t due to its format. In an effort to preserve the nature of the book while translating it to the screen, Joanna Newsom is narrating all along the movie as Sortilège. The beginning of the movie is indeed word-for-word straight from the book, and then some details get lost in the way – but we all know how hazardous a task adapting books into film can be.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator who lives in a fictional California coastal town, Gordita Beach (which bears a striking resemblance with Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived in the late sixties). Doc is the kind of loser-stoner we’ve already seen and liked in The Big Lebowski. The story begins when Doc is being involved, against his will, in a series of mysterious disappearances. And, Inherent Vice is a world where “disappear” means either possibly dead, or hiding somewhere. The movie revolves around this plot; Doc in what seems like a permanent state of confusion and paranoia tries to solve a conspiracy involving local real estate baron Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) and ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston).
Inherent Vice, as much in the movie as in the book, is a “classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there” (this sentence is written on the back cover of the book). The movie explores LA’s late sixties and its hippie “groovy” culture, the surging drugs consumption, Californian beaches and surf-rock bands, Topanga Canyon, cult and post-Manson era but also politics, Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the early stages of LA’s gentrification history (Wolfmann bulldozered a whole black neighborhood in South LA to build his Channel View Estates). It also features the eternal war between cops (Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin) and hippies (“Doc” Sportello), counterculture and capitalism.
Doc shares his confusion with us; we start losing track of what’s happening when something named the Golden Fang might as well be referring to: a boat, a rehab center, an Indochinese heroin cartel or a syndicate of dentists. The film runs out of steam midway, and the two and a half hours feel longer than they should. Inherent Vice might be quite dysfunctional sometimes, but the acting is great, the cinematography so neat and eye-pleasing that every shot is worth saving, and the late sixties atmosphere so well depicted you’ll want to watch it twice. Maybe a second viewing is necessary to fully comprehend the movie – and it is quite possible that Inherent Vice only makes total sense after a lighting up a joint.