Sex, Drugs and Missing People in Inherent Vice
Review by Daniel Rester
Anyone who requires straightforward narratives and complete coherence from a film upon first viewing should exit right now because you would probably hate Inherent Vice. Those who love going on bizarre, puzzle-like journeys in film should stick around. Inherent Vice — based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon — is the latest from American writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, this time brining his masterful skills to a 1970s-based fictional crime story filled with twisty turns, oddball characters, and lots of drug use.
Inherent Vice follows Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a pothead and private investigator who is approached by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), to look into her lover’s disappearance. The lover happens to be Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a married man who is a huge real-estate mogul in Los Angeles. Doc’s search leads him to cross paths with Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a detective and Doc’s old nemesis.
Soon Sportello is caught up in an investigation involving “The Golden Fang,” a boat suspected of bringing certain goods into the country. This all mixes in with Wolfmann, dirty cops, musicians, drug-addicted dentists, and more, with Doc going into dangerous territory.
Anderson’s film is easy to follow at first, but it soon embraces its noir and pulp ingredients to their fullest. The narrative gets thicker and harder to follow as it moves forward and develops the mystery, introducing many characters and situations that play as different pieces in the plot.
Some viewers will likely get frustrated when everything begins to pile on. Others will just let it flow over them and understand that Anderson films and material like this are not a one-and-done-watch in terms of fully comprehending everything. This isn’t to say that the narrative is completely confusing (the main storyline does come through in the end), but that there are just many angles to decipher as everything unfolds. Does every plot thread cleanly connect together? Probably not. But the story is just a device anyways to explore the various characteristics of its time period, working as a head-trip full of vignettes that capture different 70s lifestyles.
Though the story feels like a bit of a muddle at times, the writing mostly stays strong due to having detailed scenes, flavorful dialogue, and a bountiful supply of colorful characters. This might be the most playful Anderson has ever been with his writing and directing, with the film often being laugh-out-loud funny with its dialogue and visual gags; Inherent Vice is darkly comedic, but more goofy than edgy in most of the comedic setups. Josh Brolin is especially hilarious as he plays it straight in dishing out some of the comedy, including acting out sexual intercourse with his hands in one scene and eating a bunch of Doc’s drugs in another.
The rest of the cast is terrific as well. Phoenix – who worked with Anderson on the 2012 film The Master – looks like he’s having a lot of fun here exploring hippie sensibilities. He is less intense and emotional here than usual, fitting into the dopey detective role well.
Such stars as Owen Wilson (it’s nice to see him do something like this), Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, and Martin Short all contribute, though some of their roles are short. Waterson, who is lesser known than some of her co-stars, steals a few scenes as Shasta — who seems confused and sad about the whole situation with Doc and Mickey. Inherent Vice also has a friend character of Doc’s named Sortilege, played by Joanna Newsom. This character provides the film’s narration (the first time Anderson has ever used narration in a movie), which sometimes feels out of place but other times is entertaining and insightful as it reflects the characters’ feelings and situations.
The production design by David Crank and costume design by Mark Bridges are impeccable in capturing 1970s styles, though the movie never presents the time period on a grand scale. Cinematographer Robert Elswit expertly aids Anderson in capturing all of this and the actors. There are a few shots where the two just hold a shot on two actors and slowly push in over the course of multiple minutes; the results are graceful and impressive. The editing by Leslie Jones gives the movie an interesting form and a pace that mostly keeps things moving. The music by Jonny Greenwood and soundtrack choices help with the flow as well, with tunes by Neil Young, Sam Cooke, and others popping in.
Taking place in LA in 1970, Inherent Vice is fueled by everything from drug-fueled characters trying to keep the peace to the paranoia from police about cults and the Manson Family during the time. It excellently captures these 1970s particulars, but it also has a 1940s mystery feeling to it. The result mostly feels like a hybrid of noir and stoner comedy, as if John Huston would have made a Cheech and Chong film. Yet there are also scenes of beauty, such as Doc and Shasta walking on beaches in the sun or running through the city in the rain. The finished product has Anderson working many different areas, and working them well.
Inherent Vice is bizarre and has a lot going on, so it won’t play to everyone’s tastes. But the performances and craftsmanship are top-notch, though I don’t think it is among Anderson’s best films. I consider his two masterpieces to be Boogie Nights (1997) and There Will Be Blood (2007), with his other works (including this one) close behind those. This one is a bit more jumbled and less emotionally impactful than his other pictures in my eyes. Still, if a director’s lesser work can still be argued as a great piece of filmmaking then he is doing something right. And Anderson simply does a lot right with his movies, remaining one of the top American talents in his field.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).
MPAA Rating: R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence).
Runtime: 2 hours and 28 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: December 12th, 2014 (limited); January 9th, 2015 (wide).