Seedy, drug-fueled, and absent any type of sense we’re used to in film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a film destined to divide any audience that watches it. Its core story is fairly straightforward, but twists and turns abound that don’t make a great deal of sense. Anderson seems to be deliberately testing our patience in several scenes with glacial pacing and overly-chatty dialogue. If it’s possible for a movie to be an acquired taste, this is a prime example.
It’s Los Angeles, 1970. Private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) answers his door to a face he didn’t expect to see: his former girlfriend, Shasta (Waterston). She has quite a story to tell. Turns out her new boyfriend, billionaire land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is in danger of being committed to a mental hospital by his wife and her boyfriend so they can loot his fortune. Doc’s investigation leads him to encounters with a variety of dodgy characters and the mysterious Golden Fang, which is either a drug cartel or some sort of tax dodge set up by dentists. There’s also “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Brolin), a hippie-hating cop who’s in no hurry to help Doc out. Keeping up?
Anderson, adapting the screenplay from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, sets the story up and dispatches Doc on his adventure quickly. We see everything through Doc’s eyes, which can’t always be trusted since he’s smoking pot for just about every minute of this movie. It’s almost as if the top-level story is all that matters, with each subsequent story thread a one-off scene that really isn’t all that consequential. Anderson shoots the film in a beautiful 70’s noir-style filled with California sun and a soupy haze. It fully embraces the transitional period in which it takes place, not to mention the post-Manson family hysteria in the area. The film cleverly works in dry, dark comedy, such as a character screaming after viewing a picture for reasons unknown, and the whole thing is off-kilter in such a way that you can’t look away. It’s hypnotizing in its deliberate, hazy nature.
Joaquin Phoenix, sporting a full head of hair and bushy muttonchops, is again fantastic and flawlessly cast. Appearing in just about every frame, he keeps the film afloat with his character’s eccentricities and a surprising amount of focus and drive for a man who’s permanently high. Josh Brolin, square-jawed as ever, is a noir writer’s dream actor. Clean-cut and hulking, he’s excellent as the humor-free (at least of the intentional variety) and deadly serious Bigfoot. A host of big names turn up in bit roles, including Owen Wilson as a snitch, Reese Witherspoon as an attorney, and Martin Short, in the film’s funniest scenes, as a member of the Golden Fang syndicate.
It’s impossible to shoehorn Inherent Vice into any genre. It’s a living organism of its own. To pretend it makes perfect sense is a fool’s errand. Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most focused and purposefully challenging filmmakers on the planet, has once again delivered an ode to the strange and trippy. Anderson is said to have been inspired by noir in which it doesn’t matter how you get where you’re going, just that you get there. That describes Inherent Vice brilliantly. It’s a foggy, often surreal experience that is destined for cult status.
Studio: Warner Bros.
Length: 148 Minutes
Rating: R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence.
Theatrical Release: December 12, 2014 (Limited) / January 9, 2015 (Wide)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson. Based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon