Is ‘Inherent Vice’ too quirky for Oscars?

Imagine “L.A. Confidential” rewritten as a stoner comedy and you’ll have a pretty good idea of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Inherent Vice,” which premiered October 4 at the New York Film Festival. Adapted from the novel by Thomas Pynchon, it represents a significant shift from the dramatic intensity of Anderson’s recent Oscar-nominated films “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.” “Vice” approaches its story of crime and corruption with elements of absurdity. Might it be too quirky for Oscar voters?

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Oscar voters usually aren’t known for their sense of humor – by and large, they prefer emotional dramas like “The King’s Speech” and “12 Years a Slave.” Consider that out of Anderson’s last five features, the only one that failed to earn any nominations was the comedy (“Punch-Drunk Love”).

But quirky films can succeed, especially if they come from a filmmaker already popular with Oscar voters. Martin Scorsese‘s black comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street” earned a Best Picture bid last year, as did David O. Russell‘s outlandish caper “American Hustle.” The Coen brothers scored a nod in the top race with “A Serious Man” in 2009. Being past Oscar darlings guaranteed that their films were on voters’ radar, which is the biggest challenge for any awards hopeful.

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Anderson is similarly admired by the academy. Years after he earned a pair of writing bids for “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999), he finally broke into the Best Picture race with “There Will Be Blood” (2007), which also earned him his first bid for Best Director.

However, despite rave reviews and a trio of acting nominations for “The Master” in 2012, the film was left out of the Best Picture lineup, and Anderson was absent from the directing and writing categories. Can he return this year?

“Inherent Vice” might be a tougher sell. It stars Joaquin Phoenix – Best Actor nominee for “The Master” – as private detective Doc Sportello, who investigates a criminal web after the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and her lover, a real-estate magnate. Doc and several other broadly drawn characters spend much of the film under the influence of drugs, leading to scenes of outlandish behavior, including an interlude featuring Martin Short as a lecherous, cocaine-fueled dentist.

Then again, you could describe “The Wolf of Wall Street” much the same way – except for the dentist – so we’d be wise not to rule out “Inherent Vice” in top categories.

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Already a three-time nominee, Phoenix is a possible contender for Best Actor. Supporting contenders might include Katherine Waterston (daughter of Oscar-nominee Sam Waterston) as the missing woman, Josh Brolin as a self-promoting detective, and scene-stealer Short. But most of the supporting players have the disadvantage of limited screentime. Despite a 148-minute running time, most of them appear in only a few scenes each, with the exception of a more prominent Brolin.

Below the line, the film could contend for its flashy ’70s-era costumes, as well as for its hair and makeup. Best Editing is also a possibility if the film takes off in the Best Picture race, as those two categories often go hand-in-hand.

Do you think “Inherent Vice” will win Oscars, or will it be too odd for voters? Make your Best Picture predictions below.

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