The New York Film Festival scored a real coup in nabbing Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, "Inherent Vice," for a Centerpiece slot at the upcoming 52nd annual event. The film has been an early favorite among awards prognosticators as Anderson has found recent luck in the season, even when the odds seemed stacked against him (such as when "The Master" appeared to be a bit of a lost cause with the actors before going on to score three Oscar nominations). But the way I hear it, "Inherent Vice" is a very different Paul Thomas Anderson experience altogether. It is apparently a very faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, which offers a zany blend of humor that could — I stress could — prove a tough sell to Academy types.
"It's BONKERS — weird, weird, weird," one person who saw the film told me. "It made me laugh out loud several times, but not in the ways you might expect. The humor is not so much 'Boogie Nights,' as I think a lot of people are expecting. For reals, it tips into, like, Zucker Bros.-level gags and broad humor. But, obviously, mixed with his other sensibilities. Strange, beguiling tone."
Others who have seen it have mentioned that certain moments had a "Big Lebowski" vibe. "It's a sui generis mix of broad comedy, suspense, romance, melancholy and a touch of menace — unlike anything I can think of," said another.
I'm told Josh Brolin stands out in the supporting ranks and that Martin Short's work as a druggie dentist is "batshit insane." Another compared the film to Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye," starring Elliot Gould, "but amped up to 11."
Of course, there have been similar early reactions published elsewhere, so none of this is necessarily earth-shattering. It is, however, intriguing to consider the awards implications, as this appears to be Warner Bros.' biggest push this Oscar season. It could ultimately be a challenging campaign; I don't need to tell them or you or anyone that the Academy is a conservative bunch that might not take to something as trippy as "Inherent Vice" apparently is.
Everyone who spoke to me about it was a fan of the movie, it should be said. But multiple times the film's Oscar fate was questioned. "I honestly, truly, really don't think it'll get much Oscar play, other than possible tech stuff," one said. Another asserted that performances were its best bet, singling out Katherine Waterston in particular — though everyone agreed Joaquin Phoenix will be in the thick of the Best Actor hunt. They just all seemed to question the film's awards potential beyond a few key elements, so of course, I'm curious to see how that challenge will be met.
I'm obviously not saying that Warner Bros. can't overcome whatever odds these may be. The studio has knocked Oscar campaign after Oscar campaign out of the park the last few years, wrangling the Best Picture win for Ben Affleck's "Argo" and walking away from last year's Academy Awards ceremony the clear MVP, with "Gravity" taking seven statues (in addition to three more for other films) despite losing Best Picture to "12 Years a Slave." Sue Kroll and her team are also masters of the long play, never quite leading with their chin, massaging their players into handsome choices by the time the race plays itself out; just look at how the campaign for "The Departed" was handled.
Other notes from those who saw the film:
"Phoenix is in practically every scene, then I guess Brolin has the second-biggest part. All the other names are extended cameos. Well, Del Toro has a BIT more than that, but not much."
"It looks gorgeous, though stylistically, it's somewhat more restrained than his other films. That's because it's a lot of conversations, and he chooses to cover them with staid, well-composed back-and-forth static shots, or 'two shots' that sloowwwllly push in."
"The music is more all-over-the-place than usual, and he uses a few songs of the era. The score is much more Radiohead-sounding, just by way of having actual guitar and drums thrown in. There's some atmospheric electronic stuff in there, too."
Additionally, the film was pretty much complete when one of my sources saw it over a month ago. Credits and all, with a healthy two and a half hour running time.
I'm of course looking forward to seeing the movie myself and making up my own mind about all of this. A year with a Paul Thomas Anderson film is a good year indeed. And a year with a campaign challenge on a film that isn't Oscar bait on a silver platter always makes for a more interesting season. We'll just have to see how it all pans out.
"Inherent Vice" premieres at NYFF on Oct. 4. It hits theaters on Dec. 12.