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NYFF 2014: 'Inherent Vice' and the contemporary cult hit

Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Inherent Vice' premieres at New York Film Festival and spurs a polarized debate

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" world-premiered at the New York Film Festival on Saturday night, finally taking off the stove a mix of speculation and anticipation that in recent weeks had come to a full boil.

Anderson's film, after all, is the first movie ever fully adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel. It assembled for its sideways black comedy a cast as diverse as Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Reese Witherspoon and ‎Martin Short (in character parts) and recent Anderson muse Joaquin Phoenix (in the lead one), showcasing many of them in ways we hadn't seen before.

And it had marked a new, or at least surprisingly reprised, direction for Anderson himself, who after taking on deadly serious subjects and people in recent work like "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master," was returning to the anarchic comedic spirit that had charcterized his early "Boogie Nights."

Anderson satisfied some of the questions -- and stoked quite a few more -- with the debut of his nearly 2 1/2 hour film, which more than any other big-budget literary adaptation in recent memory maintains the allusive and elliptical qualities of its source novel.  (The movie’s fidelity to Pynchon's book is evident from its earliest frames when the title flashes across the screen in the same stylized font as the first-edition cover.) Pynchon‎ can't really be squeezed into the constraints of cinema anyway, seems to be Anderson's assumption, so why bother trying to make a conventional narrative film?

Like the novel, the film's plot concerns Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, in top spacey-eyed and dissolute form), a private-eye who wiles away his days getting high in a small South Bay bungalow and occasionally investigating crimes, which he does by writing ‎terse, meaningless notes in a pocket notebook.

At the movie's opening, Sportello's ex Shasta (Katherine Watertston, in a role that could thrust the little-known actress of well-known lineage into public consciousness) turns up to tell Doc that she's romantically involved with an enigmatic older, married real-estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). There is a scheme involving Wolfmann's wife in the works, and Shasta needs Doc's help investigating it.

That sets the slacker P.I. off on a quest to find out what's going down and, in turn, gets him caught up in a murder, has him chasing down an Aryan Nation bodyguard or two, has him further chasing red herrings including a flamboyant drug-happy dentist (Martin Short) and draws the ‎attention of a law-and-order cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen‎ (Josh Brolin). The time is 1970, and tensions run high between hippies and law-and-order types‎, a dynamic that gives the movie much of its thematic weight. (That last element, and Doc's character, are very much of a piece with Anderson's work; the outsider protagonist is the director's specialty.)

Shot on 35MM and featuring a score that similarly evokes a bygone era of filmmaking, “Inherent Vice” is a shaggy dog story of the most scruffy kind.‎ There is a mystery here, but how it's resolved--in fact even what's happening as it moves toward that resolution—is mostly beside the point; the comedy and character set pieces are the thing.

As he took the stage before the screening, Anderson introduced the cast with the exaggerated bellow of a wrestling announcer (“Coming all the way from Santa Monica, California…”) Then he said, “It’s Saturday night and [this] is a good Saturday night movie.” He meant that, one presumes, less in the accessibility‎ sense of the term than as a diversion you're just supposed to just kind of go with. As the movie played, plenty of filmic comparisons flew through my mind--the Coen Bros., Hunter S. Thompson, early Tarantino, a whole bunch of noir movies ("Inherent Vice" may be that at its most basic). "Fletch" ‎even flitted through there a couple of times. "Inherent Vice" references and evokes plenty ‎while being its own oddball, abstract, inscrutable thing.

Concentration, needless to say, is required and rewarded. As the movie ambles along at its leisurely pace, its deadpan ironies are camouflaged and slipped in where you don't expect them; conversations, particularly between Bjornsen and Doc, pay off a certain kind of lean-in viewing.

There's no way around it--a good chunk of audience members are going to be squirming restlessly and puzzled by “Inherent Vice" when it hits theaters via Warner Bros. on Dec. 12 (how much commercial upside the film can have is going to be one of the most intriguing questions this holiday moviegoing season). But the people that love it will really love it. (Versions of that conversation, and particularly over whether the film's weirdness and lack of linearity were virtues, were playing out at an after-party where Anderson and much of the cast mingled. I'm still going back and forth on the question myself.) Still, if "Inherent Vice" at times can confound and test your patience, that's by design. And if it has scenes that are meant to be watched multiple times so you can pick up on everything that's happening in them, that's by design too.

It has, in other words, the markings of a cult hit.

Of course, there's something weird about writing those words 24 hours after a movie has screened. A cult hit has traditionally been defined as a movie dismissed by the mainstream but, over time, embraced by a small, hard-core following that grows the movie's stature by repetition and reinforcement. But cult hits, like so much else, may be turning into something else in this social-media Insta-age, when even a movie's long-term status is divined as filmgoers are still leaving the theater.

Before the public premiere of "Inherent Vice" Saturday night, I ran into a critic friend who had seen the movie at a press showing a few hours before.  "The Big Lebowski" were among the first words out of his mouth. Maybe we do have an overnight cult hit, a cinematic first. It would be fitting for a Pynchon adaptation.

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