Critics' year-end lists are beginning to trickle out and that's a good thing for a number of movies vying for your attention. One benefactor may just be Paul Thomas Anderson's “Inherent Vice.” The critically acclaimed film (which is almost un-categorizable) also hits Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 12. That might be just enough time to pump up the film's deserved awards season prospects.*
*And it has already been named one of the top 10 films of the year and earned Anderson a Best Adapted Screenplay honor from the National Board of Review.
As I noted after first seeing “Vice” earlier this month, if anyone deserves a nomination for this movie it's Josh Brolin. The “No Country For Old Men” star is simply superb (and hilarious) as the increasingly off-kilter LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, a man who has a very passive aggressive relationship with the film's “hero,” Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). Like Tilda Swinton in “Snowpiercer,” J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” or Jessica Chastain in “A Most Violent Year,” it's the sort of supporting performance that walks that line of almost stealing the picture.
Brolin is no stranger to working with great filmmakers such as Oliver Stone (“W.”), the Coen brothers (“No Country”), Gus Van Sant (“Milk”), Woody Allen (twice), Ridley Scott (“American Gangster”), Spike Lee (“Oldboy”) and even a young David O. Russell back in the day (“Flirting With Disaster”). How does Paul Thomas Anderson differentiate himself from his peers?
“Family,” Brolin says speaking with HitFix in November. “He makes it very personal. I mean working with Woody Allen, you really want to please. There”s a mentor thing going on. It”s history and all that kind of stuff that you just can”t get away from.”
Anderson is different. Brolin notes, “It”s like a brother who you decided to do a film with. And he knows you so well. For some reason you don”t even understand why and [he] knows that your capacity is larger than what you thought it was. Whether it”s organic or caricature, if you”re not reaching that place that he knows you can reach, that you don”t even know, he”ll tell you. He”s very straightforward. It”s a familial feeling.”
Because it's an Anderson film, however, more is expected from you.
“The creative expectation is very, very on a high,” Brolin says. “You don”t come in there not having come up with something. And he wants it. He demands it.”
Collaboration is part of the process, thankfully, and Bigfoot's distinct, almost out-of-era look was something both Anderson and Brolin didn't agree upon until the last minute. Well, perhaps last 15.
“Fifteen or 20 minutes before we actually shot our first shot [we still hadn't decided on Bigfoot's look],” Brolin says. “Paul wanted to go for this kind of Jack Lord look with the wave in the hair on the top. And I had seen this picture of this guy with this flattop and constantly talking about this 'right stuff' mentality. I thought, 'Man, I think we should go for a flattop.' And he”s like, 'Oh, that”s not really how I saw it.' He said, 'Why don”t we go for this?' And then we kind of shuffled our feet for 15 minutes while everybody was waiting for us to make our decision. And he said, 'All right, go for it.' And we went down to the flattop and then everything just kind of clicked into place when it wasn”t really in place before that.”
He adds, “I think we were struggling just to figure out who this guy was. I think I was doing a voice at one time that was kind of a drawl and I let that go at the last second.”
What's so remarkable about Bigfoot is that Doc is clearly intimidated by him, but in reality he's a low-level detective who can't break through to the big time. He's been passed over for the Charles Manson investigation and he seems more fixated on his side job of playing a police officer on TV shows such as “Adam 12” than worrying about any of his cases. Brolin says it's all Bigfoot's own doing because, frankly, he's as disconnected from reality as some of the more “groovy” characters in “Vice.”
“That”s why even when you watch him on the 'Adam 12' bit, he doesn”t know where to put his hands,” Brolin says. “He”s like one of those actors. I mean we were laughing as we were doing it but…he even looks at the camera at one point. He looks right at the lens of the camera. And it”s so fast it”s like you really have to watch for it but that”s what”s fun about it is you go in and you start to break down the scene. You know they”re fairly specific in that way and that”s who he was.”
Bigfoot's strange actions (even Doc can't believe what he does at times) is another example of his frustration of being in this career purgatory. Brolin notes, “He doesn't have the strength of mind and intelligence, you know? He”s a real brute. And he”s constantly compensating for the insecurity that he has.”
It's obviously a great character for Brolin to play because Bigfoot is so incredulous to how his own actions — not just his detective skills — are affecting his day job. What police captain is going to trust a detective who appears more concerned about keeping his SAG card and doing silly commercials with an afro on? Still, he's just smart enough to use Doc as a foil to get the information he needs for his own case.
“Why would you use Doc? I mean Doc is the biggest pothead and he”s all over the place,” Brolin says. “But Doc has an intelligence that he needs in order to hopefully re-validate himself. And then I think he realizes at the end that there”s no way. That he”s just another human being who lived a life that”s gonna die. I think that”s why Doc cries, which I think is one of the sweetest moments in the movie.”
Bigfoot made for, hands down, one of Brolin's best performances, and he caps it off with an incredible scene at the end of the movie that would be unfair to spoil here. Once you see the film it's crystal clear what that scene is. All you need to know? It wasn't one take. Or two. It was many, many more.
That's commitment, people. Give this man an Oscar nomination.
“Inherent Vice” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 12.