Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, “Inherent Vice,” takes the cockeyed affection he showed for his native Southern California in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” removes those films’ more tragic elements, and adds laughs.
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, “Vice” follows stoner private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) on a loopy odyssey filled with condescending cops, secretive surf-sax players and coked-up dentists. Doc is trying to unravel a mystery involving his ex (Katherine Waterston) and other sexy/sad beauties in 1970 Los Angeles.
Featuring Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts, Owen Wilson and Martin Short, “Vice” sounds sprawling and “Altmanesque,” adjectives often attached to Anderson, a devotee of, and friend to, director Robert Altman, who died in 2006.
But “Vice,” though an ensemble piece in the Altman tradition, is funnier and wilder than Altman’s own hippified L.A.-set detective film, 1973’s “The Long Goodbye.” Imbued with the wisdom of time, “Vice” assesses the era’s hedonism more critically than “Goodbye,” drawing gasps and laughs from debauchery at its most absurd and grotesque.
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Anderson, 44, is re-entering the world of inevitable Altman comparisons after establishing himself as a singular voice through two critically beloved historical dramas that were less populated than his other works: “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “The Master” (2012).
In “Blood,” Daniel Day-Lewis played an early-20th-century oil wildcatter-turned-tycoon. In the 1950-set “The Master,” Philip Seymour Hoffman played an L. Ron Hubbard-like quasi-religious leader and Phoenix an itinerant almost-acolyte.
With “Vice,” Phoenix enters the troupe of actors who have worked with Anderson more than once. The most prominent was Hoffman, who broke through in Hollywood after his endearing performance as a porn-set go-fer in “Nights.” Hoffman, who died in February 2014, drew his final Oscar nomination for “The Master.”
Anderson, reached by phone in December during a visit to San Francisco for “Vice” awards screenings, said he still prefers not to talk about Hoffman in interviews. He is gracious in declining, as he is throughout the interview.
A San Fernando Valley native who lives in Los Angeles with partner Maya Rudolph (who in “Vice” plays a receptionist at the medical building where Doc keeps an office), and their four young children, Anderson laughs often on the phone. More down-to-earth than you would expect a three-named visionary director to be, Anderson bears out a truism of celebrity interviewing: The most talented people often are the least pretentious, and vice versa.
Q: I usually can’t stand stoner films and their trippy psychedelia flourishes. “Vice” is not like that at all. Why did you choose a more straightforward visual approach?
A: I am with you. I am not really a stoner-movie fan, either. That said, I loved “Pineapple Express” and “Up in Smoke.” Normally, when you’re sort of staring at people getting stoned, and that thing can happen where the camera starts doing funny movements and things get out of focus, it makes you wonder, “Well, why wouldn’t I just go get stoned myself?”
I think (straightforward) was the only solution to this (project). This popped into my mind: “The characters are stoned, so keep the camera sober.” Keep it straightforward, and hopefully the cumulative effect of all the peculiarities of the story and this character will add up to feeling kind of hallucinogenic.
Q: Doc is functional and kind of smart. That’s also unusual for a character who smokes so much pot.
A: I think Joaquin was really smart (in approach). His eyes are watery and bloodshot, but he plays it completely straight. That kind of person who does smoke weed as often as Doc, they are highly functioning. I have multiple friends who smoke that much. They will say, “Oh, I am not smoking that much weed. I only smoke in the morning now.” (laughs) Which is absolutely bonkers to me.
Q: Did you use special filters and lenses to get the look you achieve in “Vice?” It looks like the L.A. I remember as a child in the 1970s – beautiful but smoggy – and in films and TV shows set in L.A. from that time, which were a bit washed-out looking.
A: I had some old film in my garage that hadn’t been stored properly. We had some tests with that. And it came back looking very faded in a beautiful way. Faded and grainy and like an old postcard that is losing its color. We kind of tried to rip that off.
You kind of achieve that through all the tricks that you have – film stock and old lenses and just those kinds of nuts-and-bolts ways of going about it. Trying to make things feel a little rough around the edges, in a good way, I think. I think sometimes today, (films) get too polished. It never looks authentic.
Q: Did “The Long Goodbye” influence this movie?
A: I think – I wonder if it had any influence on Pynchon, you know? Because, as much as I have a long history with Altman, and using his films for inspiration, and friendship with him, if anything, I had to try to forget “The Long Goodbye” existed.
I (was) not wanting to do this, because it is like “The Long Goodbye.” (But) it is so ingrained in my DNA, that movie, that it is impossible to ever forget. And yeah, I don’t really know that the world needed another kind of bumbling detective stoner movie. … But it’s too late now. (laughs)
Q: What was it about Pynchon’s book that spoke to you?
A: (It is) funny, and has a great central character, this guy, meeting girl after girl after girl, and each more beautiful and confusing than the next. That was very appealing.
That is the surface-level stuff that gets you excited about going to work every day. You are like, “Oh my God, girls in bikinis. This is going to be great.’”
And then underneath it, (Doc) has this compassion for people. It never feels like he is bitter about the way things went for him, or disappointments in American life.
Q: Katherine Waterston evokes that female Hollywood archetype of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when you could see actresses really trying to shed the more innocent, buttoned-up qualities of the ’50s and early ’60s and be loose and freewheeling. …
A: Yes (excitedly). You should look up Scopitones. There are a bunch of them on YouTube. They are kind of the precursor to music videos. You would go in, and put a quarter in and you would look at these videos. It is exactly the girl you just described. This bleed from one era of a woman’s body to another, and different outfits and different things. They had one foot in trying to be counterculture. Kind of “Here comes the late ’60s.” But also they are kind of corny, and a little bit of teeny-bopper early ’60s.
(But) Katherine just sort of … possesses that body and that face. Out of the gate, she looks like she belongs to that era.
Q: “Blood” and “The Master” seemed to move you into a new category, as a serious filmmaker telling these big American stories that most filmmakers your age are not. Was “Vice” a break from that trajectory, or was there even a trajectory?
A: Any time you hear “serious” filmmaker, it is nauseating, believe me. I mean, oh my God, it is not anyway I would want to describe myself. … I don’t want to see “serious” films.
On “The Master,” we had these 65-mm cameras, and that was a big deal, and there was a kind of heaviness to it. And sure, was there maybe a lightness and a dirtiness to this one that was appealing, as opposed to what we had just done? Any time you finish something, the last thing you want to do is do it again.
This was something appealing about how kind of paperback (“Vice”) was. It seemed like a fun place to be for the summer (shoot). But that stuff is always misleading, too.
I remember thinking, “Oh great, we are going to make a beach movie.” And we were at the beach for about a half a day. (laughs)
Q: Is this the first time you worked with Maya Rudolph?
A: First time in film. We did a (stage) thing together where I did these sketches, with her and Fred Armisen, five or six years ago. But this was the first time she has ever been in a movie that we made.
But that’s also a result of, if you are making a movie about America in 1950, there’s really no place for a black Jewish girl to squeeze in there. She has a very unique look that is of a certain era. So she can fit into this one.
Q: What was it like to have her on set? Did it affect the vibe at all for you?
A: Not really, because everyone (actors, cast and crew) already knows each other. The only sort of anecdote is, we shot her stuff once, when she was pregnant. I didn’t like the way it turned out. She had come back, and when we shot it again, it was like three days after she had given birth. (laughs) I don’t think I could have asked any other actress to show up three days after giving birth.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.