The great thing about this film is that it’s made me want to go out and get Thomas Pynchon’s novel to read how his style may or may not vary in comparison to this concoction of comedy, hallucinogenic surroundings in an ever maddening spiral of crime and marijuana.
I can’t really condense the plot as it is long and dense but try I must. It’s 1970 and Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited one night by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him Mickey Wolfmann’s (Eric Roberts) wife and lover are planning to send him to the looney bin. As Doc tries to find Mickey and then Shasta he keeps running into hard edged cop Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who plays his own game in the world leaving Doc to uncover returning dead folk, FBI houses and some eerie Golden Fang group.
That could possibly be the worst plot summary for the last cinema watch of January but I gave it a shot. As gathered hopefully, you may realise this story has a hell of a lot going on and watching it unfold does get confusing at times. Not so much in the narrative just in keeping up with consequences and names and the like. This is why I want to go out and read the source material to try and wrap my head around it further. That’s credit due to Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay which has enticed me to Pynchon’s way and the story, however complex is an entertaining journey to push through.
Anderson directs with his expected touch, the long running time letting characters explode into believable life, settings and scenarios getting room to unwind and breathe. Happily after a couple of heavier dramatic outings, this feature is lighter, breezier and funny. The trailer jumped out at me from first viewing and it came with a Coen Brothers quirkiness that intrigued me and though the full movie isn’t as in running with that mode, it is subtly funny throughout and a few audible chuckles make their way into the open at downright odd moments that happen.
One of the strongest aspects has to be found in the costuming and general look of the film. The production crew and all hands coming together to craft clothes and decor must be heftily patted on the back for making this film look amazing and 100% feel the part. The fun to be had at seeing how Doc changes his mould from sloucher hippy with straw hat to smoothed suit and tie is a warm leap, the comedy of him even changing hair styles to fit in his P.I lifestyle makes the cinema trip worthwhile.
The voice-over decision works well too I must say, adding a neat zany touch as it interrupts from time to time between sentences of dialogue alluding to how Doc is then feeling. The narration by Joanna Newsom is just so right for the part and sounds quite blase in her delivery that it provides another eccentric layer to proceedings.
Joaquin Phoenix is a huge delight and the blank eyed stare he gives in either confusion at madness occurring in front of him or his influence under drugs helps make Doc that much better to like. You root for him and even in his quite childish way, he’s smart and loving and you want him to succeed, the past flame is a hurt in his life and Phoenix makes that clear without forcing it down our throats. Katherine Waterston has been in a few films, but I think this appearance will be the big curtain opener for people as she’s flawed but relatable and you buy into hers and Doc’s relationship. Josh Brolin is gruff and hulky as the big bad cop though as it goes on you see how much Brolin looks like he’s having fun with his character, smashing on doors and ordering morto panecako (or however it’s spelt!) Owen Wilson is nice guy done wrong trying to do right and crops up again and again in a shady role as he attempts to get back home, the huskier frat boy role is gone and a maturer Wilson emerges. Jena Malone gets a short scene, though it’s easily one of the funniest as pictures are shared and fake teeth are bared. Everyone in this film is downright terrific and make their characters thrive.
The story as mentioned is convoluted and it could be deemed as a big problem of the movie, but try to look past it as it’s a really well made film however hard the plot may be to keep up with. Not inherently easy to grip or overly hilarious but just the right amount of funny and creative puffs from Anderson’s directorial joint maintains intrigue in this strange free loving 70’s film.