inherent vice 3

Anderson Bares His Comedic Chops

Inherent Vice is probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s Ted.

Before you laugh that off, hear me out. In an interview to promote The Master in 2012, Anderson spoke of his fondness for two – let’s say, different – comedies:

I’d like to make a film like Airplane. That never gets old. Or Ted.  It was a big hit. Why? Because it’s great. Movies that are that big a hit are never fucking bad. I mean, there’s no such… You know, people aren’t that stupid, that movie’s a hit because it’s hilarious.

After making something as brooding and moody as The Master, it makes sense that Anderson would want a bit of a light palette cleanser. But rather than dropping his signature style to make a ribald comedy, he finds ways of incorporating this irreverent humor into Inherent Vice.

Take, for instance, the banana scene. The obvious sight gag of Josh Brolin’s Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen fellating a chocolate-covered banana is just plain hilarious. It starts out seemingly innocent, but then the simmering sexual undertones boil over into all-out sexual innuendo. Our instincts tell us that Anderson, high-minded aesthete that he is, would never put in such a juvenile joke. And yet, there’s Bigfoot ramming the phallic-shaped food into his mouth with accelerating velocity.

The Hollywood studio version of this joke would probably wallow in the luridness of Bigfoot’s oral fixation. And yet, Anderson has him entirely out of focus, blurry in the foreground while Doc’s increasingly revulsed reaction shows clearly in the background. What might be an immature gay panic gag instead serves as a demonstrative example of the bizarre power dynamic between two detectives operating outside traditional legal authority.

Anderson has spoken about watching Police Squad! clips on YouTube during smoke breaks and letting that influence trickle into Inherent Vice. There are no blatant homages or callbacks like there were to 2001: A Space Odyssey in There Will Be Blood or Let There Be Light in The Master. Instead, Anderson lets the spirit manifest itself in the film and animate certain sequences that might otherwise play more flatly. Phantom Thread makes use of humor, too, though in a far more conventional way with the kind of piquant British wit that spices up many a period piece.

The Abrahams/Zucker comedy style is silly but hardly sophomoric. The visual humor relies on active viewership, often working on multiple planes and underselling the comedic virtues of a given joke. There’s no real reason, for instance, to have a pizza party at burn-out band The Boards harken back to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. But it rewards a viewer who’s paying attention. By the time the shot’s intention becomes clear, Anderson gives it about two seconds to register. (Contrast that with a similar setup from Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, which lingers on the tableau for nearly a minute.)

Inherent Vice The Last Supper

Among the most serious cinephiles, there can often be a hierarchy of taste that is based on objective taxonomy than we’d like to admit. Filmmakers deemed “serious” often tend to correspond with a certain level of erudition. They are serious because they require education to understand and appreciate, which makes their exaltation in turn tickle the ego of the person with the capability of exalting them.

Far too often, we equate the sophistication of a filmmaker’s homages with the quality of their work. Boogie Nights recalls early Scorsese’s vitality. Magnolia has ensemble work with a sweep that invokes Altman. Punch-Drunk Love toys with French New Wave techniques. There Will Be Blood boasts well-earned Kubrickian comparisons. Phantom Thread draws comparisons to Hitchcockian melodrama. Paul Thomas Anderson’s antecedents are undeniably impressive. But declaring Inherent Vice a lesser film simply because it does not play into a familiar genre or riff on a director’s filmography, whether consciously or not, establishes a subtle hierarchy of taste in his canon.

Inherent Vice is great because it’s so distinctive, so purely PTA. The film combines both Anderson’s verve and meticulousness while also miraculously fusing with the sensibilities of Thomas Pynchon. His ability to infuse what many consider lowbrow culture into a highbrow literary adaptation is a postmodern marvel. It might not be the film he had to make, but it certainly feels like only Paul Thomas Anderson could make Inherent Vice – a feat which alone should keep it from clustering with Hard Eight at the bottom of rankings. Don’t try to overly intellectualize it, just let the feeling wash over you…

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