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NYFF ’14: Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner

October 5, 2014

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There are few directors I run hotter and colder on than Paul Thomas Anderson and Mike Leigh. Anderson made one of my 10 favorite films of the ’90s (Boogie Nights) and one of my 10 favorite films of the ’00s (There Will Be Blood), but also made my least favorite film of 2012 (The Master). Leigh, to me, is like the British Woody Allen: I like his earlier, funnier stuff (High Hopes, Life is Sweet) better than his more self-important later work (Vera Drake, Another Year). So I really didn’t know what to expect from their new films, Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner, at this year’s New York Film Festival. And true to form, I loved one and the other, not so much.

Inherent Vice marks the first screen adaptation of a novel by Thomas Pynchon, an author I’ve never read because even the people who love him don’t seem to understand (or at least don’t seem able to explain to me) why. I can’t say I fully understood (and I certainly couldn’t explain) the story of Inherent Vice, but with a movie this thrillingly weird, funny, vital and well-acted, it hardly seems to matter.

Joaquin Phoenix, an actor fully in tune with Anderson’s warped vibe, stars as a P.I. in 1970 L.A. As he investigates the disappearance of an adulterous real-estate tycoon (Eric Roberts!), he runs afoul of neo-Nazis, Reaganite Republicans, a syndicate of drug-smuggling dentists (led by a deliriously loopy Martin Short!), and the LAPD, personified by a frozen-banana-fellating crewcut named Bigfoot (the terrific Josh Brolin). It’s Chinatown meets China White—an addictive noir funhouse ride.

The teeming ensemble encompasses everyone from Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life wife) and Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam, who was seen beaming with pride after the NYFF screening; I just hope he covered his eyes during her prolonged nude scene) to a trio of performers long-overdue for creative comebacks: Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Benicio Del Toro. Shot on grainy film for that gritty ’70s feel, Inherent Vice also benefits from a groovy soundtrack, including two tracks by Neil Young, whose mutton-chop sideburns seem to have inspired Phoenix’s look.

Timothy Spall rocks some serious sideburns as 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner in Leigh’s Mr. Turner. I just wish the film had one-tenth the energy of Inherent Vice. At times, it feels like you’re literally watching paint dry as Leigh and Spall create a portrait of the artist as a grunting old man. It’s a finely etched rendering, but the problem with portraits is: They don’t move. And neither does this movie.

Leigh’s trademark improvisatory style seems at war with the very concept of a biopic: Mr. Turner is all pic and no bio. The filmmaker refuses to try and shape his subject’s life into a coherent narrative and the result is a shapeless mess. We learn a few things about Turner: He had huge appetites for women, food (including a pig’s cheek, in one meaty scene) and art. But the story goes nowhere very, very slowly.

The film does have a distinctive painterly look. Cinematographer Dick Pope used vintage lenses (that had been employed to document the first successful trip up Mt. Everest as well as on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic Spartacus) to create the antique visual style. If only the script were so masterfully focused. When it comes to Leigh (and Anderson, for that matter), one of his earlier titles sums up my reactions to his films: it’s All or Nothing.

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