What makes a good movie? Perhaps the more appropriate question is who gets to dictate what is or isn’t a good movie? You can jokingly sort films into amusing categories such as “guilty pleasures” or “childhood favourites” – we do this as a way of justifying why we like a movie if it doesn’t typically seem to be a credible piece of film. As a film student, I always identified a difference between the films I loved to watch and the films that I loved to admire – but why should there be a difference? Is it more or an accomplishment to make a film that impresses us on a technical level, through components such as performance, aesthetic and cinematography, than a movie that people want to watch again and again? If Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest drug-fuelled detective story does one thing right its sparking this type of complex conversation about the medium of film itself. I came out of Inherent Vice feeling perfectly baffled and confused. I was unsure of my own feelings about what I’d just seen, so instead I tried to address the cold, hard facts. 1. Three people walked out of the screening in the first 90 minutes. 2. I did not enjoy the experience and I wanted it to be over. 3. I didn’t connect to any characters or care about their predicaments. Now comes another debate – does that matter? It does. For me, a cinema-goer, it does. The trailer, whether through clever marketing or just plain deceit, promised us a hilarious, neon thrill ride. Then again, you could argue that a trailer doesn’t actually promise you anything.
I’ve previously had little sympathy for people who’ve turned up to a film and been disappointed because they didn’t know much about it before going in. I research my movies. I read reviews, watch interviews and follow the hype – that’s all part of the cinema experience for me and many others. Prior to seeing Inherent Vice I couldn’t relate to people who went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and expected a romantic comedy. It’s your own fault for not knowing the graphic novel origins and the film’s premise. Now, I’m not so sure. Who owns a film? Does a director owe you anything? Is it dishonest to pack a trailer full of laugh only to let people pay £9.50 on a Friday night before you reveal that there are no more laughs to be had? This is all interesting to ponder but let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of Inherent Vice itself. When a private detective is visited by a past lover, and asked to research the disappearance of her current boyfriend, the mystery of Inherent Vice begins. We join Doc as he travels through a constant pot-infused fog on a journey across California. The detective work drives the narrative forward but soon rears off into chaos and frustrating inconsistencies. I was warned before seeing the film that I shouldn’t try to follow the case. I didn’t, and I think this only isolated me more. You’re isolated by the lack of resolutions, the drug-filled haze shared by most characters and the lack of depth to all people and parties involved. It is normal to want answers, happy endings and relatable figures; Hollywood has trained us to expect as much and when we don’t get it we often feel a sense of guilt.
Inherent Vice, in all its madness and self-indulgence, looks, sounds and is technically marvellous. This isn’t a portrayal of the seventies. This is the seventies. Every surface, shirt and decoration fits the era. It’s a film of beautiful textures and colours. You can smell the freshly dealt grass and taste the salt of the Californian beaches. Jonny Greenwood returns to compose the score for Anderson for a third time. The music is versatile, complimentary and eccentric. Joaquin Phoenix is outstanding. There is an understanding between him and Anderson that is present both here and in The Master. Yet here the audience don’t share in the understanding. We don’t know how to feel about the film or the characters – it’s like a personal joke between director and actor that only distances us more. It’s too long; that’s maybe the only obvious flaw that everyone can agree on. Anderson’s earlier work has needed length in order to propel. Here the length detracts from what could have been a smart, unique and absurd 84 minute cult classic-to-be. I don’t think Inherent Vice will become a cult film – despite what is being said about the correlations between audience walkouts and future audience followings. One thing is for sure, Inherent Vice is easy to write about – easier than it is to watch.
It might also be important to point out just how badly I wanted to like Inherent Vice. Film critics always claim that they to go into films with their impartial, neutral caps on; the truth is we’re all human. I don’t want to see a bad Werner Herzog film or a visual confirmation that Martin Scorsese is too old and out of touch to keep making movies; that would make me very sad. The only truly impartial was to look at films as puzzling as Inherent Vice is to imagine you’re watching a film by an unknown director. You can try to pretend that Anderson knows what he’s doing and that the intention was probably to create characters we can’t form bonds with. The harsh reality is that if this was a debut by a director with no reputation of impressive past portfolio we wouldn’t all be struggling to make up our minds. We’d have come out of Inherent Vice feeling more opening negative. That’s the truth and maybe that’s the only way to really judge the quality of a movie. Still, Inherent Vice achieved the unusual; it made me neither like nor dislike it. It made me question the origins and the rules of art and, as a result, I’ve had nearly 1,100 words to say about it.
“Inherent Vice: You’ll enjoy the conversation it sparks more than the film itself” – a tagline that might have made the trailer a bit more sincere.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.