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The Venture Bros., "Hostile Makeover"

Season six of The Venture Bros. is guaranteed to be an interesting one. Successful? That remains to be seen, especially as “Hostile Makeover” on its own doesn’t provide much of an indication of what to expect. But interesting for sure, if only due to its (clearly deliberate) audacity.

It opens with a few seconds on the old Venture Compound, and then immediately shifts us into an entirely new life for the family, a new context, full of new characters, new adventures, new outfits, new roles, new expectations…new everything, really.

A major shakeup like this isn’t unprecedented. The Venture Bros., after all, has been a show that’s used permanent change to great effect.

We can all argue about which season (two) or episode (“Everybody Comes to Hank’s”) is best, but it’s impossible to deny that change is the engine that keeps the show fresh. With every shakeup, revamp, retcon, introduction, and evolution we must move away from at least some of the things that made the show great to begin with, but, ideally, we’re moving toward other things that will keep the show great in their own ways.

In fact, major shakeups are built into the space between seasons. Season one, remember, ended with the on-screen murders of the title characters…and the unexpectedly affecting breakup of The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. The former shakeup was addressed by the very first episode of season two, but the latter gave the second season its entire emotional throughline, culminating in the two of them reconnecting, and marrying…another shakeup in itself, especially as the nuptials intertwined with the neutralization of Phantom Limb, The Venture Bros.‘ lone example of villainous competence (and therefore danger).

Season three ended with Henchman 21 dying, Brock quitting, Sgt. Hatred joining the family, and the cloning lab being destroyed, so…yeah, shakeups left and right, there. This fed, I believe, into the scattershot nature of season four. Instead of one central theme to explore, it had a lot of loose ends to tie up. Some of them revealed themselves to be deeply effective, and others were kind of dead-ends. As much as there was to enjoy about season four (and there was, indeed, much to enjoy), the show felt a bit like it was rounding the bases rather than sowing new seeds. And its finale — the incredible “Operation: P.R.O.M.” — was less a shakeup than a grand collection of the show’s many themes. To a good number of viewers, it felt like it could have worked as a final episode…and that’s something that couldn’t possibly have been said about any season finale before.

Season five didn’t get a proper finale until “All This and Gargantua-2,” which deposited us right where we are today: with Dr. Venture heading up a successful, thriving, important iteration of Venture Industries.

The fact that he’s doomed to fail, to destroy the company, to squander his fortune without learning anything, does nothing to detract from the importance of the shakeup. In fact, it just means there’s another inevitable shakeup at the end of this story; his old compound is a pile of ashes. When this new — ahem — venture fails…where can he possibly go next?

“Hostile Makeover” doesn’t even pretend Dr. Venture is going to succeed. His very first order of business, it seems, is to fire absolutely everybody. Who are these people? He doesn’t care. What did they do for Venture Industries? He’s not interested; he just doesn’t want any of his money going to them. The new phase of his life has only just begun, and he’s taken active steps to ensure it won’t go anywhere.

Which, if I didn’t laugh so much at the episode, I’d be tempted to turn into a criticism about “Hostile Makeover” in general; it really doesn’t go anywhere.

That’s fine, however, because — moreso than any season before it, including the first — it’s laying one hell of a lot of groundwork. There’s the new setting (though we’ve spent a bit of time here before, notably in “Twenty Years to Midnight” and “Bright Lights, Dean City”), of course, and Dr. Venture’s obviously fleeting clout, but that’s by no means all of it.

There’s the return of Brock…and the unhappy discharge of Sgt. Hatred. There’s the Council of 13 scraping itself back together, and — perhaps — returning the Guild to an earlier, more democratic incarnation. There’s Dr. Venture and the boys blowing through money, there’s Dean giving college another try, there’s Hank meeting an according-to-Hoyle mermaid, there’s The Ambassador and Steve McQueen, there’s a wealth of new character introductions, there’s a new arch enemy for Dr. Venture, there’s The Monarch and Gary infiltrating the Ivory Tower, there’s the sea captain relapsing…and plenty that I’m already forgetting.

It’s a lot of work for very little payoff, but I’d be surprised if they intended it to be a stand-alone story at all. It’s the first chapter in a new book, and we can’t complain too much if most of that time is spent on buildup…especially with season five ending in a very literal and very deliberate scorching of the Earth behind it.

No, “Hostile Makeover” can’t really be evaluated until we’ve seen what it builds to. What that is, specifically, is anybody’s guess, but the episode spends a lot of time convincing us that there’s a great deal of mileage in the show’s new configuration. I agree, but I wish there was a little more evidence on display.

In fact, here’s an exercise.

Here are all of the post-shakeup season openers. They each have a lot of cleanup to do and a lot of dominoes to arrange, but can we still find an identifiable plot amongst the logistical maneuvering?

Powerless in the Face of Death: A distraught Dr. Orpheus searches for the souls of the deceased Venture boys while The Monarch plots an escape from prison.

Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny: The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend must answer for their behavior to The Guild, while we learn through flashbacks what brought them together.

Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel: Sgt. Hatred attempts to assert himself as a suitable bodyguard for the Venture clan while a group of Nazis force Dr. Venture to clone Hitler.

What Color is Your Cleansuit?: Dr. Venture is contracted by his more successful brother to build a ray shield for Gargantua-2, and his interns pay the price for his cut corners and incompetent management.

Hostile Makeover: …Dr. Venture picks up some clothes?

Obviously more happens than that, but it’s telling that that scene might actually be the closest thing we get to a plot.

Am I disappointed? Nah.

Or…maybe a little, if only because The Venture Bros. has so successfully balanced shorter stories with longer arcs from the beginning. It’s rare that we get an episode like this, in which we really are meant to see it as nothing more than a small part of a longer journey. In fact, I can’t think of any episodes previously in which that was the case. (Disagreement is welcome; examples are even more welcome.)

There may not be much plot, but there is, however, one strong central theme to “Hostile Makeover”: conflict.

Just about everybody is at somebody else’s throat…or nearly so. There’s such tension in the air between characters that the biggest laugh of the episode — HELPeR pushing J-Bot off the roof — is the one time it comes to a head.

Dr. Girlfriend puts tension on her relationship with The Monarch by bargaining their arching rights over Dr. Venture away. Dr. Venture puts tension on his relationship with the Pirate Captain (possibly the sole remaining employee of Venture Industries) by firing the rest of the staff. Colonel Gathers puts tension on the already-rocky relationship between Brock and Sgt. Hatred. And all of this is on top of the normal levels of tension that exist in the show already, being as it’s packed with misanthropes and monsters.

When HELPeR finally snaps, it’s not just well-deserved; it feels necessary. It’s the smallest, lowest-stakes example of the tension breaking, which means we have one hell of a lot to deal with in the coming weeks, but it’s a start.

I don’t know what the coming weeks will bring, which is both the best and the worst thing about “Hostile Makeover.” It leaves all of its doors open, but doesn’t provide much in the way of direction. It has so many options, which is great, but it doesn’t suggest a way forward. By this point I trust the show, which is the important thing. But it’d be nice to have a sense of what comes next, rather than a tangle of things that may or may not build to anything interesting.

My biggest concern, to be frank, is the introduction of Wide Wale, Dr. Venture’s new arch enemy. While there’s every chance he’ll turn out to be a great addition to the huge roster of villains in this show, it’s worrying that he’s immediately being given a spotlight role, and I’m not sure I saw anything this week that indicates he deserves one.

Perhaps I’m a bit worried because of characters like Torrid, Dr. Quymn, or Augustus St. Cloud, who became important characters because the show forced them to be important characters…and then realized that it can’t think of anything to do with them. Even Sgt. Hatred, whom I love, had a confusing, fitful ascent to “important character” status.

So, Wide Wale, prove me wrong. Please.

Overall, I’m excited by season six, but I think that’s in spite of rather than because of “Hostile Makeover.” It’s only fair that I treat this season of The Venture Bros. like I treated season four of Arrested Development: if I tuned in to this show by chance, and it had nothing to do with The Venture Bros., would I still like it?

It’s hard to say. I think I’d be interested in it. I don’t know if I’d be impressed. But I’m about 99% sure I’d tune in the next week to give it another chance.

And ultimately that’s what matters…whether or not people can get invested in what they’re seeing, even if it doesn’t make much immediate sense to them. If “Hostile Makeover” is disappointing, it’s only disappointing because The Venture Bros. set the bar so high to begin with.

In conclusion, Dr. Venture picked up some clothes.

Game Art, Matt SainsburyReleasing next week, Game Art is a directly-titled look at one of the most indirect forms of art out there. In fact, if I wanted to take issue with the book, that’s where I’d point; the title’s simplicity almost seems to do a disservice to the depths plumbed within.

To put it as succinctly as I can: I very much enjoyed this book. So much so that it took me several weeks to write this review. It’s easy to get drawn into, and when you manage to pull yourself away there’s so little that it feels like one can add to it. It’s a perfect study of a traditionally unstudied medium, and it’s hard to put any of this better than the author — or his interviewees — already did.

I received a review copy from Matt Sainsbury himself. I mention that by way of dual disclaimer. Firstly, I got the thing for free, which is always good to know…but by this point I hope you realize how much I hate all things, generosity included, so that wasn’t about to shape my opinion. Secondly, I know Matt. But I know Matt, primarily, as a writer. As a critic. As someone who has been doing exactly what he does in this book for the past several years. If my opinion of Game Art is enhanced in any way by my knowledge of Matt, it’s because his body of work has earned that respect.

Game Art feels like the culmination of a passionate lifetime of independent study and appreciation. It’s an oddly magical journey that gives respectful, gallery treatment to the kind of art that so frequently flits along in the background while somebody tries to survive a gauntlet or solve a puzzle. And it’s pretty incredible stuff.

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Quite why game art (lowercase) gets the short shrift, I’ll never know. It’s in the same boat game music was in a few decades ago; creations by talented people that were not perceived as legitimate works. In the case of game music, the rise of OverClocked ReMix did much to grant retroactive legitimacy to these compositions. It provided a platform for other artists to pay homage to and develop upon the source material, and it opened a path to reappraisal and rediscovery.

Game art, oddly, has not had the same opportunity. As graphics improve massively year over year — and as games are often derided for not looking good enough — there’s a stunning lack of appreciation for those images as art. They’re a box to be checked, and then the world moves on to judging the next one against some cold, arbitrary scale.

Matt opens the conversation for reappraisal with Game Art, quite literally. Because in addition to presenting some stunning imagery, he gets in touch with the artists and game designers that put these visuals together, and does something unthinkable: he asks them to talk about it.

The result is a guided tour through underappreciated works by those who labored to create them, and there’s an overriding and charming sense of humility in the words of just about every interviewee. These aren’t artists who demand to be noticed or even understood. These are creators speaking about their processes of creation, and it’s a beautiful read.

In fact, the book could have functioned perfectly well in either of two ways. It could have been a big, glossy, quiet showcase of in-game and concept art worthy of a second look. It could also have been a collection of interviews with the unsung artists behind the games we love and a few we’ve forgotten.

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Instead it’s both, which is why it’s so hard to put down. Read a few interviews, and get lost for minutes on end in the companion visuals. Find an image that draws you in, and dive immediately into the words of the artist who created it. It’s not just a great way to understand and experience game art; it’s a companion to itself.

Most importantly, familiarity with the games themselves isn’t necessary to appreciate the book. While I’ve played a few of the games covered here, I can safely say that I missed out on the majority. The conversations, though, are about larger topics. Like these comments from Michael Samyn, who has five games featured in the collection, regarding the somewhat limiting interplay between his role and the programmers’ in putting a game together:

If you want to get really creative, you’re up against a wall all the time thanks to the rigidity of the programming. Artists have very complex logic of their own; it’s just that their minds work differently than a programmer’s. I do think that’s perhaps another reason there aren’t as many interesting games from an artistic point of view.

He then goes on to discuss a — potentially exciting — aspect of artistic design that’s very specific to an interactive medium like video games:

The player not only has the imagination to complete the work, as they would with a movie or book, but they can actively change the narrative itself. We also like to make our games rich so players can express themselves and do things depending on how they feel. That means we can’t really finish a game like you would finish a book or a movie.

These aren’t conversations that require a specific frame of knowledge to understand; these are unique and valuable insights into the nature, obstacles, and experiences of the creative mind.

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Game Art is at once an easy read and deceptively dense. It’s difficult to speak concretely about it, because much of what the book does is get your own mind working. When, as above, a question of leaving room for audience interplay is raised, it’s conducive to independent thought. It gets your mind working as a reader, if only because these are concepts that haven’t been explored in the public consciousness before. These are considerations that are familiar to those creating within the industry, and regularly glossed over by those enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Matt’s bridging of this disconnect feels long overdue, and the fact that it’s handled in such an appealing, gorgeously visual tome is, frankly, more than we deserve. It’s the sort of book that’s impossible to read without being at least mildly envious of the author for identifying such a massive gap and paving over it so perfectly.

I’ll remind you again that Matt’s my friend. He’s a great guy. And I’ve interviewed him here before in the early stages of the project. But none of that shapes my opinion of the final product. It doesn’t make me like it so much as it makes me appreciate all of the time and the effort that I know has gone into this. It’s a book that very much succeeds on its own merits, and absolutely lives up to its ambition.

If you have any interest in games, visual arts, interactive arts, or the creative process in general, Game Art is very much worth your time. It’s also a handsome enough volume that it makes for a great gift.

It’s available on Amazon and from No Starch Press directly. The latter offers it as an ebook for an outright psychotic $32, though, so, seriously, pitch in the extra few dollars for the physical version.

Here’s hoping Game Art is able to elevate the levels of appreciation and discourse when it comes to…well, game art. It’s a welcoming, inspirational, and by no means exhaustive way to open the conversation. It’s our job to keep it going.

Better Call Saul, "Uno"
Let me get the elephant out of the way first; I don’t have cable. That means I’ll be a day behind on my Better Call Saul reviews. I don’t think that will matter in the long run, but in this particular case it means I’m writing about episode one while you’re all watching episode two. Do me a favor and try to avoid episode two spoilers in the comments, but otherwise feel free to pick apart the fact that everything I say here has already been disproven by the second installment. (Oh, and, needless to say, these reviews may well contain their own spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the first episode yet, go do that. It’s good.)

So, here we are. Breaking Bad is over, but we have another opportunity to dip back into its universe. It’s a spinoff. And a prequel. And…a sequel. But we’ll come to that in a moment.

If any character from Breaking Bad seemed like he could carry a show on his own, it would indeed have been Saul Goodman. Saul always did seem to me like an intrusion from another world. A welcome intrusion, I hasten to add, but when Walter described him as coming off like a circus clown, he was echoing my thoughts as well. Saul was the jester in a tragedy.

His introduction on Breaking Bad was given an entire episode; one full of complicated two-handed scheming to get ahead, and a strong prioritization of money over justice. That episode was also called “Better Call Saul,” and that short summary could apply to this introductory episode as well.

Saul Goodman has always been in danger of becoming a cartoon character. Yet, I’d argue he was kept just in check by Vince Gilligan and co. While his dialogue was too clever by half, it always seemed rehearsed. It’s not that Saul was witty…it’s that Saul was prepared. When we see him delaying a court case so that he can practice his precise words — not only what he will say, but what he will say in return — it bears that suspicion out. And I think it says a lot that the prosecutor in this very court case, which goes deservedly south for our hero, says absolutely nothing. He simply gets up and shows the jury the evidence. The prosecutor knows, or senses, that you won’t win a verbal sparring match with Goodman. Refuse to engage him, though, and you’ve got him on the ropes.

Better Call Saul, already, is filled with these little details that manage to define an outsized character without necessarily humanizing him. Perhaps down the line we’ll get our tear-jerking moments, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for them. Goodman is a strange creature, given to flights of theatrics and rushes of inventive panic. Sitting him beside more “traditional” television lawyers (such as the aforementioned prosecutor, or Mr. Hamlin in a later scene) reveals that Saul’s world wasn’t crazier than Walter’s; Saul was the comic outlier there, too. He’s the comic outlier everywhere.

One of the reasons, I believe, that people surrendered themselves so willingly to Breaking Bad was its promise of a built-in termination point. Whereas so many shows start off promisingly and then spin their wheels until the money stops coming in, Breaking Bad told us in the first episode that Walter White was going to die, and it was going to happen sooner rather than later. Vince Gilligan could have reversed that decision in any number of ways at any point, but, ultimately, he didn’t. Even when Walter “beat” cancer, it was already replaced by a much more frightening danger. Tension cannot be ratcheted up indiscriminately; at some point, it needs to go somewhere. Otherwise your audience realizes that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Better Call Saul, surprising me, opens with the promise of a termination point as well. Granted, we knew eventually that our favorite criminal lawyer would meet Walter White, and we know his story from there. But so what? Couldn’t Better Call Saul trot out silly court cases and situations indefinitely? Does he actually have to get anywhere?

The opening of “Uno” says, yes, he does. In fact, it picks up where Breaking Bad left off for him. He’s managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. He has a new name, a mustache, and impaired vision. And sometimes, when the nights are particularly lonesome, he’ll pop in a VHS of his old commercials, and remember what life was like when it had some color.

This means, again, that Vince Gilligan is taking us somewhere. As easy (and fun) as it would have been to give us The Continuing Adventures of Young Saul, we enter this story knowing that it’s not going to have a happy ending. And that’s tantalizing.

“Uno” does a lot of scene setting, which is understandable. The fact that in many cases it only sets the scene and leaves the rest for now to our imagination (such as the possible ousting of Chuck McGill from his partnership, and our hero’s romantic flounderings) is positively laudable. We trust the show to explain these things in due time, and the show trusts us to respect it and have patience.

However, there’s a problem. At least potentially. And here it is: James McGill is already Saul Goodman.

He has a different name, far less money, and a dearth of clients. He drives a Suzuki Esteem with one red door. He has more hair and has not yet discovered Bluetooth.

But he’s still Saul.

If you take the Walter White of Breaking Bad‘s first season and compared him to the Walter White of Breaking Bad‘s final season, the difference would be astonishing. The show very deliberately plotted his dark descent, but remove all of that knowledge from your mind and simply compare both versions of the same man. It’s striking.

Now take the Jimmy McGill of “Uno” and compare him to Saul Goodman. Superficial changes aside, I don’t think you’d see a different person. At all.

I don’t see this as a problem that can’t be surmounted, but I am interested to see what they do with it. If Breaking Bad was about a man changed by his circumstances, Better Call Saul looks like it’s about a man changing his circumstances.

We know he gets more successful, and we know that if he does experience a serious change of personality, it can’t be permanent. So what is the journey of Jimmy McGill? I don’t know, and considering the fact that I know both how his story begins and how it ends, that’s an unexpected admission.

Ultimately, Better Call Saul deserves to be thought of on its own merits, but the fact that it features more than one familiar Breaking Bad face — and is undoubtedly to feature more (hurry up, Kuby!) — means that we’re going to hold it to a higher standard than we would some unrelated Bob Odenkirk law comedy. Then again, we probably wouldn’t be watching that unrelated Bob Odenkirk law comedy.

As of the end of “Uno,” my concerns are more like questions. While some of the comedy went a bit broad (a phony severed head rings particularly false after the exquisite pain of Breaking Bad‘s more brutal moments), there are enough quiet passages of McGill facing something inside, something we can’t see yet. Something, maybe, we will never see. And at the very least, I’m looking forward to exploring that…however indirectly.

If it’s fun to spend time with Saul Goodman, then that’s all we really need. In a show that opens with its own inevitable, sad coda, though, I hope that’s not all we get.

"All This and Gargantua-2," The Venture Bros.

At the end of last season we had “The Devil’s Grip,” an oddly quiet episode that felt strangely out of place when stacked up against the previous season finales of The Venture Bros.. This show typically likes to go out with a bang…whether that’s in the form of a wedding, the accidental deaths of its title characters, or all out war. “The Devil’s Grip,” by seeming contrast, went out with a firm handshake and some well wishes.

It was, to be honest, odd. Perhaps even disappointing, as its place at the very end of the season made it feel like a weaker entry than it really was. Then again, after season four’s finale — the incredible “Operation P.R.O.M.” — there wasn’t really anything The Venture Bros. could do to top itself.

Not until now, anyway, with “All This and Gargantua-2.”

See, “The Devil’s Grip” was never intended as a season finale. It fell that way due to budget and time running out sooner than anticipated. No story concepts, as far as I saw, were leaked, but creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer both made it clear that they had a more traditional finale in mind…and just didn’t get to make it.

“All This and Gargantua-2” aired last night as a one-off special, but its original role as the “proper” ending of season five is clear, especially since its outcome rests on the ray shield Dr. Venture was building in the season five premiere.

The greatest thing about The Venture Bros. is how effectively it manages to evolve its themes rather than abandon or resolve them. It’s an ongoing narrative sleight of hand that at times can feel tiresome — particularly in terms of undone deaths and shifting organizational allegiances — but what it manages to do is make every episode feel like some kind of impressive thematic bookend. Every time the credits roll we don’t just reflect back on the chapter we’ve just seen, but on all of the chapters that came before. What all of the characters have said and done to get us here, exactly here, at this moment.

And so while (honorary) Dr. Venture works to fix the ray shield, we aren’t just being reminded of the season premiere. His desperate need for validation from his son stretches back far further than that. It’s never been so clearly articulated (both verbally and non-verbally) before, but it feels like the natural evolution of everything these two characters have been through together. The ray shield ties the event into a larger narrative, but Dr. Venture’s fear that he could very likely die right here and right now without Dean’s respect ties it into a larger theme…one that the show — entering its sixth season — is still managing to explore in fascinating, affecting, tragic ways.

It’s also a laugh riot. “All This and Gargantua-2” is a celebration of everything The Venture Bros. has been, and can be, and that’s reflected in both the amount of characters who (shockingly well) manage to share screen time, but also in the writing, which pivots from sharp to heartbreaking to hilarious in ways that even The Simpsons didn’t manage in its prime.

I’ll probably need to explain that one, but I’m happy to do so. Though The Simpsons obviously managed sharp / hilarious without breaking a sweat, the show veering into heartbreaking territory always felt like a gear shift. At its best it was a smooth one, but its moments of sadness stand out in part because they were exceptions to the weekly norm. The Venture Bros., by contrast, has a deep and necessary through-line of tragedy. In fact, there may not be a scene in the show’s entire run that can’t be stripped down to a dark and hopeless core.

But I don’t mean to elevate The Venture Bros. over The Simpsons and declare it superior. What I do mean to do is spotlight just how unique a show like this is, and just how privileged we should feel for being able to watch it unfold before us.

The plot is absolutely conducive to a double-sized episode; Jonas Venture Jr. has finished Gargantua-2, the space station he’s been building for the past couple of seasons, and is now opening it to the public as a kind of gambling resort. The comedy writes itself — a cute “only spies play baccarat” gag is the kind of perfect moment only The Venture Bros. could make work so well and then abandon so neatly — and the stakes (ahem) are clearly high having so many important characters in what we know is going to become hostile territory, but the episode doesn’t rest on comedy or tension, whereas nearly any other show would have.

Instead it weaves the comedy and tension into a long-form, multi-directional character piece, and it does so gorgeously.

Some of it is the kind of thing we’ve seen before, like Brock taunting his victims and Hank playing hero, but much of it reveals new and interesting angles for these characters. Billy and his mother in particular look set to become a very welcome comic pairing, and Jonas Jr. and General Treister bonding over a certain serious affliction develops into the unexpected emotional highlight of the episode. There’s a great unexplored history between Col. Gentleman and robot-kind that resolves itself when you might not even be paying attention, and some genuinely worrying thinning of the Council of 13.

It’s the kind of thing few shows have the chops to pull off, as “All This and Gargantua-2” sets up an epic space battle, but bets its chips on character development and interaction. And it’s exactly the type of episode that makes the sometimes frustrating back-and-forth of the show’s overall narrative feel not only acceptable, but necessary. Whatever it took to get these characters into this situation, with that resolution, it was worth it.

There’s also a welcome bit of meta-awareness that becomes actual, in-universe complication: Phantom Limb, at one point in the story, isn’t sure if he’s been double crossed or triple crossed. The audience is often left wondering which side is which side, whether it’s the OSI, SPHINX, the Guild, or, now, the Guild Resistance. When backstabbing characters themselves begin to lose track of whose back is being stabbed by whom, that’s an interesting development indeed, and a reminder that Publick and Hammer are both fully aware of the kinds of tricks they’ve been pulling…which is a necessary condition for resolving it in some way that justifies all the confusion.

With “All This and Gargantua-2,” The Venture Bros. remains one of American television’s most pleasant surprises. And as we move on to season six — whenever we move on to season six — we can rest assured that there is still plenty of ground to cover with these characters.

Oh, and if you watched the episode, be sure that you’ve also watched the online-exclusive epilogue here. Some big things may have happened aboard Gargantua-2, but there was a lot unfolding on Earth as well.

As above, so below. Go, Team Venture.

Review: Inherent Vice

January 12th, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in film | review - (3 Comments)

Inherent Vice, Sauncho and Doc

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I love Inherent Vice. The novel, I mean. I’ve read it at least six times at this point…possibly more. It’s by no means my favorite Pynchon, but when it was announced that for the first time ever the reclusive author allowed someone to adapt one of his works, I had to admit this was a good choice.

Inherent Vice, the novel, has a clear beginning, a clear ending, and a relatively clear journey between those terminal points. That’s more than you could say for almost anything else the man’s ever written. The fact that it also has a relatively small roster of important characters (again…a Pynchon rarity) and relies heavily on overt comedy makes it seem like the perfect Pynchon to bring to the screen.

I’ve now seen the film. In fact, I saw it with Paul Thomas Anderson in attendance, as he graced the humble Denver branch of the Alamo Drafthouse with his presence. I thought he might provide some insight into the film, or at least give me something that would make for a good story.

Instead he stood up to speak before the film, mumbled what sounded like a flat joke at the theater owner’s expense, and then seemed to lose all confidence. He interrupted himself in the middle of a sentence and said something to the effect of, “I don’t feel like talking. Let’s just watch the movie.”

Nervous laughter. Some shuffling. But, yeah, he was gone. I thought he made his way back to his seat, but when the houselights came up at the end of the film he wasn’t there, so I have no idea if he even stuck around after that.

And, you know, that’s okay. I’m not entitled to any special knowledge by virtue of getting a ticket to this particular showing. Hell, anything he might have said would have colored my impressions of the film I hadn’t yet seen. So my enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. I hope he wasn’t having as lousy a night as it seemed like he was, but other than that, I was completely focused on seeing, for the first time, my favorite author’s words come to life on the big screen.

If anything, that’s actually my complaint.

Or the closest thing I have to a complaint.

There’s too much Pynchon in this film. When adapting it’s not uncommon to strive for fidelity to the source material, but I don’t really see the point. The film should be good on its own merits, and if that means it needs to deviate from the plot, characterization, themes, or anything else that worked perfectly well in the book, that’s fine. Anderson seems — for much of the film at least…read on — to want to be as true to the text as possible, and I think that hampers where it can go, and what it can achieve.

A pleasant surprise hit me early in the movie: this was Pynchon’s dialogue. Not dialogue adapted from Pynchon’s dialogue, but Pynchon’s actual dialogue. And I felt supremely vindicated, as one common complaint from readers is that his dialogue isn’t natural…that he has a tin ear for it. I can’t bring myself to agree with that at all…and Inherent Vice, the movie, should put that criticism to rest. Reading it, yes, it might seem a bit artificial, but that’s because Pynchon doesn’t adhere to textual speech patterns; he adheres to human speech patterns. Hearing skilled actors delivering the same words demonstrates the impact they can have, at least once you tune in to their frequency and stop expecting them to tune into yours.

But it was followed by a much less pleasant surprise: this was Pynchon’s narration. Not scenes adapted from Pynchon’s narration, but Pynchon’s actual narration. And it was overkill. The film by no means needed a narrator. Granted, the writing was solid, but it wasn’t written to be spoken over images of exactly what it’s describing. It renders itself redundant. We see that Doc is distraught, and we’re told that Doc is distraught. It provides an unfair barrier between us in the audience and Joaquin Phoenix playing the character, as though the film itself doesn’t trust his performance.

Now Inherent Vice has one hell of a difficult mystery at its core, and I could understand the desire to keep the narration if Anderson felt that it would help his audience to understand what was going on. But it’s not the mystery that gets narrated…it’s the emotion. The motive. The inner conflict. You know…all the stuff that actors get paid to portray without words. And I found the inclusion of so much narration to be a clumsy and distracting decision.

It’s nice, I guess, that the narration was provided by Shasta Fay Hepworth, a character in the film, but what we see of Shasta doesn’t really convince me that she thinks or speaks like Thomas Pynchon writes. It seems as though Doc might be narrating this entire thing in his head with Shasta’s voice, but I just don’t see the value as making up for the effort.

This does lead to a really nice moment toward the end of the film, however, when Doc asks Shasta what the phrase “inherent vice” means. She replies that she doesn’t know. The narrator version of Shasta then defines it for him, and for us…which is a cutesy touch, but isn’t nearly enough to justify the inclusion of the narration overall.

So, there. Now that I’ve got my big complaint out of the way, I can talk about what I liked…and there’s a lot of it.

For starters, Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay. She not only looked the part…but she was Shasta Fay. She embodied that character deeply and flawlessly…so much so that it was painful to watch. She was an absolutely perfect casting choice, and I can’t imagine any other actor — at any point in time — would have handled it better.

Shasta opens the film by informing Doc — private eye, hippie, and her ex-lover — of a plot to kidnap her current beau, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann. As in the book, Doc follows up on this lead and investigates other cases along the way…each of which seems to feed right back into Wolfmann’s disappearance.

Along the way Doc clashes regularly with his law enforcement counterpart, Bigfoot Bjornson, who is played by Josh Brolin in the film’s other perfect casting choice. Brolin could have settled for making Bigfoot a comic boob, and that would have worked perfectly well. Instead he adds layers of sadness to the character deeper than even the book managed. Whereas the novel plays Bigfoot’s acting ambitions for laughs, the film turns them into a kind of ongoing silent tragedy. There’s little sadder than watching him in the background of an episode of Adam-12, with no lines, hoping against hope that somebody, somewhere, will notice him.

I’ll get back to Bigfoot in a moment, as I have a lot more to say, but the film itself manages to be very good without matching the greatness of Waterston’s and Brolin’s performances. Inherent Vice lags behind them, which is frustrating, because those two seem to have drifted into our world from a parallel one in which there exists a better version of this film.

The rest of the casting choices are very good without being revelatory. Martin Short as Dr. Blatnoyd is an expected comic highlight, even though he’s only in around two scenes, and Owen Wilson handles himself quite well as a regretful saxophonist nobody’s supposed to know is still alive.

Benicio del Toro plays the thanklessly efficient part of Doc’s attorney, a substantial part in the book that gets reduced to an unfortunately paltry series of scenes here. I get the feeling more was shot and we’ll see it on the eventual DVD, but for now Sauncho Smilax turns up a handful of times to sit near or walk beside Doc, and that’s a big disappointment. In fact, I’d have recommended cutting the character altogether if his significance was so severely reduced.

That actually leads to another of my concerns: the concern for fidelity leads to a lot of characters making the jump to the screen without really having much to do once they get there. Sauncho is one of them, certainly. So is Tariq Khalil, who sets Doc on the trail of a man named Glen Charlock. Charlock turns up dead, and Khalil I guess just forgets he ever cared, because we never hear from him again. Later we meet Clancy Charlock, Glen’s sister, for no real reason that I could discern, and then she’s gone, too.

Having Doc meet with so many clients who immediately disappear is a bizarre choice. These characters have larger roles in the book, and while I understand that not everything can (or should) be carried over to the screen, it’s disappointing that instead we get a kind of half-measure. “Here,” the film seems to say. “Remember this guy?” We do, yes, but it’s hard to get excited when the film doesn’t do anything with him. In fact, the end credits are filled with character names that we never actually hear in the film. There was such a commitment to getting as much on the screen as possible that it didn’t even matter if there was any significance to them being there.

This is especially problematic in the case of the film’s main villains: Puck Beaverton, and Adrian Prussia. Puck appears several times in the film, but in the book he had his own entire subplot which helped to establish him as a credible — and ruthless — threat, as well as the kind of guy Doc should have nothing to do with. In the film he has a swastika on his face. Is that enough? Maybe. But if that’s all you get, is he even a character?

Prussia is served even more poorly. The main dark force in the book, we meet him very close to the end of the film. There’s no way to complain about this without spoiling it, but let’s just say this is his only scene. The bone-chilling powerhouse in the book — who draws Doc into a climactic and comic shootout that spills out into the streets — is here, and then he’s not. Some small attempt is made to weave him back into the things we’ve already seen, but it’s too little too late. The scariest motherfucker in the novel is a complete non-entity in the film, and he’s not really replaced by anything else. His a walking signifier of all the things missing from the movie. Not just as an adaptation, but as a movie period.

At one point in Doc’s investigations he turns up the fact that Prussia was responsible for the death of Bigfoot’s partner. It sheds a lot of light on Bigfoot’s behavior in both the film and the book, but we last see Bigfoot in the book still following his desperate need for revenge, and it’s so pitiful that we can’t help but feel for him and hate him at the same time.

In the movie…well, that doesn’t happen. It’s replaced by a scene I’m not even sure I can explain. If you watch it, you’ll know what I mean when you get there, whether or not you’ve read the book.

Inherent Vice will probably grow on me. I’m sure I’ll watch it many, many more times. But as of right now, it feels like I’ve seen half of a film. Having read the book means I can fill in some of the blanks, but really what I wanted was a piece of art that could stand on its own merits…even if it had nothing in common with the novel but its name.

I’d have preferred a simplified plot to a rushed one, and a few different characters combined to loads of characters that have little or nothing to do.

The movie gets a lot right. The casting is never less than great. The soundtrack is perfect. The resolution of the dead saxophonist case — one of the very few things in this film that has a resolution — is genuinely sweet. There are excellent comic moments sprinkled throughout, and glimpses of a great film that somehow only managed to be very good.

I think my feelings about the adaptation can be summed up by looking at the ending. I won’t mention any specifics; I just want to say that at the end of the book, there’s a scene that seems irrelevant…and yet, reading it, I knew exactly how we got to that scene, and why. It mattered. At the end of the film there’s a scene that seems very relevant, and yet I couldn’t tell you why we ended up there. It has to matter, because it’s the end of the film, but that’s about all I can say for sure.

It’s worth seeing, I’d say. But it’s not the film it could have been.

Of course, I’m coming at this as a guy who read the book way too many times. Maybe my expectations, despite my best efforts, weren’t properly aligned. To find out, tune in a little later; a friend who’s never read the book but is deeply passionate about film will be providing a second review of Inherent Vice for Noiseless Chatter. I’m curious to see what he’ll have to say, based only on the merits of what was on the screen.

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