Welcome to the latest entry of Contender or Pretender 2014! Our Oscar hopeful this week is Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Will it prove to be a triumph with Oscar, like There Will Be Blood, or an awards disappointment like The Master?
The Hopeful: Inherent Vice
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Owen
Wilson, Reese Witherspoon
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Release Date: December 12
Since making his debut in the mid-1990s, Paul Thomas Anderson has been one of the most acclaimed American filmmakers of the past twenty years, starting with sprawling ensemble dramas in the vein of Robert Altman such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, then moving into more singular character studies with the likes of Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master. PTA’s latest seems to be a return to his Altman-inspired roots, as Inherent Vice’s will boast one of the year’s deepest casts, and the story has drawn comparisons to Altman’s noir classic The Long Goodbye.
Leading this illustrious roster of actors is Joaquin Phoenix, who, in a significant departure from his last PTA lead role, will play stoner PI Doc Sportello, who investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend against the backdrop of 1970s Los Angeles. Like Altman before him, Anderson has had an inconsistent track record with the Oscars. He quickly achieved minor breakthroughs with AMPAS, with writing nominations for Boogie Nights and Magnolia, with both films also receiving nominations in the acting categories. Quirky comedy Punch-Drunk Love was an awards non-starter, with its only major recognition a Golden Globe nomination for star Adam Sandler. PTA’s 2007 follow-up, There Will Be Blood, proved to be a decisive success with AMPAS, with Anderson receiving his first Best Director and Best Picture nominations, as well as a Best Actor win for Daniel Day-Lewis. 2012’s The Master, a drama widely believed to have been loosely inspired by the early days of Scientology, underperformed at the box office and was only able to score nominations for its three leads-Phoenix, Amy Adams and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
At first glance, the subject matter of Inherent Vice would not be ideal for PTA to be welcomed back to the Dolby Theater. The source material, which has been described as “ stoner noir,” would suggest that the PTA film it shares the most in common with is Punch-Drunk Love, the only Anderson film besides his debut Hard Eight to be completely overlooked by the Academy. However, Anderson is in a very different place in his career now than he was when he made Punch-Drunk Love. He is now considered to be at the pinnacle of American filmmaking in a way that he was not in 2002, and the filmmakers held in such esteem are often able to get AMPAS to recognize subject matter that they otherwise would not- would anyone besides Martin Scorsese, for example, have gotten a film like The Wolf of Wall Street the recognition that it did?
The key for Inherent Vice will be whether or not the film has a strong enough emotional core at the center of the quirky stoner antics. The film has been by described some, including star Josh Brolin, as a “powerfully romantic” piece, which suggests that the required emotion will indeed be present and that the relationship between Phoenix’s Sportello and Katherine Waterston’s Shasta Fay Hepworth will be front and center, which is a good sign for its eventual Oscar chances.
When it comes to potential nominations this film might receive, Katherine Waterston is one of the more interesting wild card possibilities. The daughter of the award-winning veteran actor Sam Waterston, Katherine will receive her first major exposure with this role. Unknowns typically need a greater degree of acclaim for their performance than for more established actors, though once they receive such acclaim the sky is the limit, as Lupita Nyong’o’s winning performance in last year’s 12 Years a Slave demonstrated. The source material revolves more around the search for Waterston’s character than her character itself, but if the early indications Anderson will depart significantly from the material as he did with There Will Be Blood, then Waterston may well have a nomination-worthy role.
Phoenix’s path to a nomination should be an easier one. After incurring raised eyebrows for his bizarre fake-retirement and its depiction in the film I’m Still Here, he has reached new heights as an actor, thanks in no small part to Anderson. His performance in The Master was raved as one for the ages, and despite the film’s general underperformance and Phoenix missing the crucial Screen Actors Guild precursor, he was ultimately nominated for Best Actor. In 2013, he followed up with Spike Jonze’s Her, which cemented his status as one of the top actors working today. The major disadvantage he faces is that his performance will likely be comedic in nature, and all three of his prior nominations to date have been for more dramatic work (although his performance in Walk The Line was classified as a Comedy/Musical by the Golden Globes, who awarded Phoenix Best Actor in that category). The Academy does seem to be warming up to comedic performances more lately, with Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio both being nominated in 2013 for work that was classified as comedic (by the Golden Globes, at least). If Phoenix’s performance generates similar acclaim to those two, then a nomination for him should be no trouble at all.
An intriguing question mark surrounding the film will be which of the many male supporting players is the most likely to receive an Oscar nomination. So far, the earliest speculation has centered around Oscar winner Benicio del Toro (Traffic), who plays Doc Sportello’s attorney Sauncho Smilax, and Oscar nominee Josh Brolin (Milk), playing Christian “ Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a thuggish LAPD detective. These two roles would seem to fall under the categories of comic relief and antagonist, respectively,. Without knowing how Anderson has altered the story of Inherent Vice from the novel, conventional wisdom would suggest Brolin, as the likelier candidate, given that the role of antagonist has historically fared better in Supporting Actor than that of comic relief (though both have strong track records overall). These changes that PTA has made could also mean that all bets are off and another of the supporting players could factor in, such as esteemed comic Martin Short, or veteran character actor Peter McRobbie, who plays the role of Adrian Prussia, another antagonist to Sportello in the novel.
The Master failed in its Oscar bid despite being backed by Harvey Weinstein’s TWC, but Inherent Vice’s distributor is no slouch in the Oscar game itself. Warner Bros has the strongest recent Oscar track record of the major studios, with three Best Picture wins in the last ten years (2004’s Million Dollar Baby, 2006’s The Departed and 2012’s Argo), and has featured at least one nominee in the Best Picture race for the last five years, something only matched by Weinstein himself. Inherent Vice is a smaller film than usual for a major studio to handle, but Warner Bros. has shown they are equally suited for campaigning relatively small scale films such as Her and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as they are with huge tentpoles such as Inception or Gravity. Furthermore, Inherent Vice seems to be the studio’s only major Oscar hopeful for the year (though that may change if Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is confirmed as a 2014 release).
Though only 43 years old, Paul Thomas Anderson has already begun to be discussed as a filmmaker who is overdue for major recognition from the Academy. Inherent Vice may not be the ideal vehicle to change that- something that has been described as “ The Long Goodbye meets The Big Lebowski ” can never be given the label of Oscar bait, even by Anderson standards. However, if the film is met with the high level of critical acclaim that has come to be expected of Anderson, then it will be in a situation as close to ideal as possible for such a film. In Joaquin Phoenix, the film boasts a leading man on the Academy’s radar (and who is beginning to stir up some early overdue talk himself), and a distributor with a great track record and few other awards options. If any film of this type is ever to be embraced by AMPAS, Inherent Vice would be the one.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: CONTENDER
JOSH BROLIN: CONTENDER
BENICIO DEL TORO: CONTENDER
KATHERINE WATERSTON: CONTENDER
[author image=”http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v193/erikdean/0341151b-3137-4134-9de4-84a1560d6736_zps040dc936.jpg” ]Peter has been on the Awardswatch forums since the start of 2012. He’s a student in the real world and a student of pop culture, and he enjoys predicting who will win awards because it combines his love of pop culture with his love of competition and speculating about the future. His prediction prowess makes him a member of both the Emmy Experts and the Gold Rush Gang.[/author]