Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is Writer-Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s strangest film yet. Like Anderson’s other films, it’s a spectacular piece of work, but damned if I can figure out what the hell it’s about.
The story focuses on stoner private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and a promise he makes to his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Shasta enlists Doc’s help to unravel a plot against her current beau, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Apparently, Mickey’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her boyfriend, Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson), are trying to get Mickey committed to a mental hospital. It seems fairly cut and dried, but the plot gets suitably twisty from there to include the Aryan Brotherhood, drugs, a saxophone player, murder, and constant thorn in Doc’s side, Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Doc works multiple cases throughout the story, but they all end up tying together in some way.
The problem with Inherent Vice—or the beauty of it, depending on where you’re standing—is that Doc is high almost all the time, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not here. Let’s start with the fact that the narrator of the film, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), is a girl who isn’t there. I’m not sure if she’s someone who once existed or if she’s a complete figment of Doc’s imagination. I’d have to watch the film again to figure it out, preferably not in a screening room right next to one playing Interstellar, which our theater had so loud, it was tough to hear the dialogue at times. I also called that it was Interstellar before confirming after the film. Good film, just please don’t play it next to quiet films like Inherent Vice, theater managers.
Your overall enjoyment of Inherent Vice will depend on A) Your opinion of Pynchon and his novel, and B) whether you’re content to just enjoy the ride. I haven’t read the novel yet, but I understand Pynchon is a difficult read. As for taking the journey, I have to say, I enjoyed this one. There’s a ton of humor here and Doc is a far more interesting character than he looks on the surface. It’s funny that I mentioned Interstellar above. Not only were these two films the ones I was most looking forward to in 2014, but they are similar in that they are more about the journey than the end result. The problem with Inherent Vice, though, is that it’s a detective story and it works better if you know how all the pieces fit together at the end. There’s not much of a payoff at the conclusion and I felt that hurt the film ultimately. However, if you want to have any hope at all of understanding what’s going on, you have to pay attention the whole way through. It is a lot of fun, though. Also, the way Anderson shoots the film makes it feel like 1970, which was a great touch. He truly is one of the modern day greats.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic as Doc. He adds layers to the character while expertly delivering the comedy. He is, at times, the “dirty little hippie” that others accuse him of being, but he also has good instincts. He finds himself in trouble from time to time, but despite his general state of impairment, he’s a decent detective. Brolin is also superb as Bigfoot. His scenes with Phoenix are hilarious and Brolin attacks this role with gusto. Waterston—daughter of Jack McCoy himself, Sam Waterston—brings beauty and mystique to Shasta. She’s an appropriate femme fatale for 1970, in that she seduces our hero, gets him into a load of trouble, and we’re never quite sure we can trust her. It was really nice to see Phoenix reunite with his Walk the Line co-star Reese Witherspoon, who plays Penny, an assistant district attorney that is seeing Doc on the side. Penny clearly feels like she’s slumming it with Doc, but she doesn’t have an issue living two lives, as long as she’s getting what she wants out of it. The rest of the supporting cast is equally great with nice appearances from Owen Wilson, Martin Short, and Benicio Del Toro, who for the first time I can remember, completely buries his accent.
Inherent Vice works if you simply want to take the trip. Don’t try and piece the mystery together, just float along on a cloud of smoke and enjoy Doc’s adventure and detours. If that kind of journey doesn’t sound groovy to you, you’re better off skipping this one, but you’ll miss some great performances and a whole lot of fun.