The 2014 New York Film Festival marked its halfway point on Saturday night with a big Alice Tully Hall premiere and Tavern on the Green after-party for its Centerpiece selection, the world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Inherent Vice, which Warner Bros. will release on Dec. 12. Anderson and almost all of his star-studded ensemble, led by Joaquin Phoenix, were on hand to celebrate this first-ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel — the famously reclusive author apparently makes a cameo, but good luck spotting it — as were a huge number of other high-profile members of the film community. Now the question is whether or not the film can attract regular moviegoers and votes from the Academy.
As was the case with the Opening Night selection, David Fincher‘s Gone Girl, Inherent Vice revolves around a missing person case, was greeted with a polite sitting ovation and struck most people with whom I spoke as not uninteresting — several scenes, as adapted by Anderson from Pynchon, are electric — but too long and somewhat incoherent. Many likened the 148-minute mystery to another example of the film-noir genre, The Big Sleep (1946), which was adapted from a convoluted Raymond Chandler novel; that, in one sense, is quite a compliment, but it’s also a way of saying that the story is virtually impossible to make sense of. (The New York Post‘s Lou Lumenick tweeted that Inherent Vice “makes The Big Sleep look like a model of narrative clarity.”)
Some argued after Gone Girl that plot holes don’t matter in art. I say tell that to the Academy, which has never really bought into non-traditional or experimental films to any great degree. One noteworthy exception was The Tree of Life (2011), which almost certainly owes its best picture Oscar nom to the weighted voting system that was implemented at the outset of this decade, whereby 95% of Academy members can leave a film off their best picture ballots entirely, but that film can still land a best picture nomination if the other five percent of members — or roughly only 300 people — loved it enough to put it in the top spot on theirs. That’s a narrow path to tread, but it can happen, and it might be the best hope for Gone Girl and Inherent Vice.
Regardless of the outcome in the top race, might Inherent Vice show up in other categories? Absolutely.
Its lensing, by Robert Elswit, who won the best cinematography Oscar for Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, was done on 35mm film, which is increasingly rare, and specifically on the sort of film stock that perfectly evokes the 1970s period in which the film is set, so he stands a great shot. (He also shot this year’s similarly mood-evoking Nightcrawler.) And its score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who should have won the best original score Oscar for There Will Be Blood, is also very powerful.
Phoenix, as the lead, does first-rate work, as always — it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part — but if he couldn’t get nominated for a project like Her in a year like last year, it’s hard to imagine that he can get nominated for an even weirder project in an even more competitive year. (Plus he mumbles a lot, which older Oscar voters hate.)
Everyone else in the film’s giant cast has cameos of one size or another, with Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Martin Short and Owen Wilson having some of the larger and better ops, and Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and PTA’s partner Maya Rudolph barely showing up at all. (In fact, the pornstar Belladonna has more screen time than those in the latter aforementioned camp — and more than holds her own.) Any/all of them would compete in the supporting acting races. Brolin, for his hilarious turn, and Waterston, for her darker work, probably have the most realistic — if still somewhat long — shots.
And then there’s Anderson himself, whose prospects — in the best director and best adapted screenplay categories — are probably the hardest to anticipate. (He was nominated in both categories for There Will Be Blood, the only other film that he has made from a novel, as opposed to an original screenplay; he earned best original screenplay noms for Boogie Nights and Magnolia.) The 44-year-old is absolutely revered by his fellow filmmakers, and even when they don’t love his work, they respect it. But will they respect Inherent Vice enough to single him out in these extremely competitive categories? We’ll see.
One possible clue: the fact that a massive number of filmmakers who had nothing to do with the film — among them J.C. Chandor, Geoffrey Fletcher, Mike Leigh, Bennett Miller, Julian Schnabel and James Toback, most of whom have Oscar votes — came out to see Inherent Vice last night. (For the record, so, too, did Mark Ruffalo, Edward Norton, Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, There Will Be Blood‘s Paul Dano, Katherine Waterston’s dad Sam Waterston, CAA partner Bryan Lourd, Sony Pictures Classics co-chief Michael Barker and former Miramax chief Daniel Battsek.)