We're entering the final week of the New York Film Festival, and as such, the big centerpiece film has been unveiled: the world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling comic crime saga "Inherent Vice." As far as premieres go, this is one of the more hotly anticipated ones -- the movie doesn't open until December and besides a handful of stills and a recently revealed teaser trailer, virtually knowing had been known about this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's best-selling novel (the first such adaptation ever).

Well, now we know.

The movie takes place at the tail end of the '60s, with a washed-up private detective named Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) who sees his increasingly complicated life through a scrim of bad vibes and pot smoke. He is visited by a lost love (Katherine Waterston, utterly beautiful) and gets embroiled in a conspiratorial plot that involves, among other things, a crooked land developer, a twisted love affair, Neo-Nazis, a crazed dentist, a maritime lawyer, drugs, guns, and a cop who longs, desperately, to become an actor. So, yes, it is nuts.

But does the movie live up to the considerable hype accumulated by the filmmaker, author, and creative principles? Or does it get crushed by it?

1. It's Pretty Confusing...
Plot-wise, "Inherent Vice" is all over the place. It's a wild grab bag of influences and historical allegories, set in a very specific time and place (the end of the '60s, the beginning of the '70s) that also feels like it takes place on another planet altogether. It's a weird sensation, a movie that tries to adhere to some level of realism but is clearly the movie version of whatever it's trying to dramatize. And if you haven't read the book (which we hadn't), then chances are on a very basic plot level, you'll be totally confused; lost even. (This is especially true since most of the characters speak in a serialized, "groovy" version of of-the-period slang.) But that's also part of the fun of watching the movie.

2. ...But Still One of the Best Movies of the Year
And even without being able to pick apart plot specifics, it's not much of a stretch to call it one of the very best movies of the year. It's a wild, whirligig masterpiece with a thousand moving, vaguely psychedelic parts; you can get high just from the fumes coming off of this thing. It captures that Pynchonian spirit to an unimaginable degree; it's both bananas and deeply relatable (in an odd way). Even as wacky as it gets, it makes a certain kind of sense. It's bananas, it's hilarious, it's unforgettable, and it's totally amazing. Even if you have no idea what is actually going on.

3. There Are Always Things Going on in the Background
A lot of what goes on in "Inherent Vice" is wacky-as-hell, and PTA has stated on numerous occasions that the movie is directly influenced by "Airplane" and the films by the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team (ZAZ), who were the pioneering filmmakers behind a gag-filled spoof sub-genre that has extended to today. And it's really true. When we got out of the film we were talking to somebody else and asked us if we had seen some crazy, Keystone Cops-style stuff in the background of a scene. We had not. But apparently this is throughout most of the movie. Although it's seemingly less like a ZAZ movie and more like an incredibly visually dense comic book, one where you have to scan the panels more than once to get all of the information. It's pretty incredible and unlike anything you've seen (unless you still subscribe to MAD Magazine, in which case -- we love you).

4. This Might Be the Funniest PTA Has Ever Been
Like David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson gets classified as a "dark" director, singularly obsessed with overwrought drama. And just like Fincher, PTA is actually much funnier than people give him credit for, with humor laced through almost all of his movies (yes, even "The Master"). "Inherent Vice," though, is probably the funniest he's ever been, with sequence after sequence that had us busting a gut (even when, as stated above, we had little rudimentary understanding of what was going on). The actors are all totally game, even if they aren't particularly known for their comedic timing, and sometimes the comedy flies off into wild, unexpected directions. Prepare yourself: you'll laugh yourself silly.

5. Joaquin Phoenix Is Amazing (and Still a Total Grump)
Originally PTA wanted Robert Downey Jr. to play the role of Doc but Iron Man had other plans, so Phoenix, who had just gotten done with "The Master," took over. Phoenix is amazing; he's never been more electrically alive in a role, but he's also still totally grumpy. At the New York Film Festival press conference that followed the overflowing press screening, he refused to talk. He just sat on stage, next to his fellow actors (and Paul Thomas Anderson) and just sighed. Ah, Joaquin... So talented... And so grumpy...

6. The Score Is Wonderful
Johnny Greenwood, the talented British musician and member of Radiohead, has scored the past couple of Paul Thomas Anderson joints, and the results have been dazzling. His scores have been breathtaking and odd, full of dissonant movements and hissy ambience. They were more noise than music and that was what made them sort of beautiful. But with "Inherent Vice," he's focused more on melody, crafting a funky backbone for the movie that occasionally appropriates orchestral and electronic flourishes. In short: it's awesome.

7. If You Didn't Like 'The Master,' You Can Still Like This
PTA's last feature, "The Master," featuring one of the last great performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, was great but also alienating. And the climax was almost Xeroxed from his previous film, the singularly powerful "There Will Be Blood." This is much different and much more outwardly entertaining. So if you found "The Master" difficult and weird, there's a chance that you could feel the same way about "Inherent Vice." But there's just as big a chance that you will find it much more inviting and fun.

8. It's Gorgeous
"Inherent Vice" sees Anderson reunited with his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit ("The Master" was shot by Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) and the results are typically breathtaking. They shot the film in the "fatter" 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a "flat ratio that, in the press conference that followed our screening, PTA likened to a Volvo -- "they're boxy but they're good." Well said sir, well said.

9. The Supporting Cast Is Ridiculously Great
Yes, Joaquin is amazing and he's in almost every scene. But the supporting cast of "Inherent Vice" is an embarrassment of riches -- there's Reese Witherspoon as Doc's current flame (a much more "straight" woman than he has any right to be with), Owen Wilson as a jazz musician informant, Benicio del Toro as a nautical lawyer, Jena Malone as a recovering heroin addict (fake teeth!), Martin Short as a horny dentist, Michael K. Williams as recently-released convict, and, most impressively, Josh Brolin as a thuggish LAPD officer named "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. Each one of these performances is more over-the-top than the last but not in an arch, see-who-can-be-more-outrageous way. In the psychedelic spectrum of "Inherent Vice," these actors provide the colors.

10. We Can't Wait to See It Again
Even though "Inherent Vice" runs a cool two-and-a-half-hours, as soon as it was over, we were ready to watch it again. Before we see it again, though... We're going to read the book. That'll make the experience even groovier.

categories Movies, Reviews