Based upon the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon that even the most experimental types in Hollywood have considered to be unfilmable, Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice doesn't so much make sense of Pynchon's material as it completely inhabits it with such fearless authenticity that you can't really help but take out of it exactly what you're supposed to take out of it.
It's easy to describe Inherent Vice as a cousin of sorts to such noir classics as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, but if you stop right there you're only getting part of the picture. There are those who want to compare the film to The Big Lebowski, but that's really only on the surface.
You can do it. I have faith in you. Despite the film's pot-hazed cinematic aura and amped up post-Manson rage paranoia, Inherent Vice is projecting a much bigger picture than you might realize. After all, this is Pynchon material and while it may seem like Pynchon likes to waste words even at his most verbose he manages to make them say something. The same is true for Anderson, whose films may never score a billion bucks at the box-office but whose artistic integrity is without question and whose films are, without fail, among the most originally voiced and creatively alive creatures coming out of Hollywood these days.
Inherent Vice is no exception.
The film is set in 1970 Gordita Beach, California, a year after Manson did the only thing Manson is actually known for doing and in the process slashed away the innocence of the 60's and opened the door for a more paranoid and authoritarian time to follow. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a spaced out private eye of sorts who manages to get in and out of more than a few scrapes with an equal balance of melancholy and mania. In the opening scene, Doc is visited by his ex, an "old lady" named Shasta (Katherine Waterston), an almost free spirit whose Hollywood aims have allowed her to basically submit herself to a billionaire Hollywood developer. She needs Doc's help, of course, and it kind of goes without saying Doc knows this sure isn't a good idea but is going to do it anyway. He'll pay for that decision, again and again, but this is Doc Sportello and he just does what he does. Along the way, he'll find kindred spirits and those who want to kick his ass. Sometimes, it'll be the same person. There's the police lieutenant who lacks complete remorse even as he violates your civil rights. There's a coke-snorting dentist and the Aryan Brotherhood. Heck, there's a sax player for a surf rock band.
Heck, I can't keep describing it. You've just got to see it for yourself.
If you know Pynchon's work and you watch Inherent Vice, then you'll also know that Anderson here has done some pretty miraculous work by managing to condense the dialogue into a less convoluted narrative that likely still won't make a whole lot of sense unless you're actually paying attention. If you've ever seen a Paul Thomas Anderson film, then you already know that his films aren't for the casual moviegoer.
I mean, c'mon, folks are still talking about those damn frogs in Magnolia.
While Anderson seemingly loves to make films about California, this is his third, the films he makes aren't exactly what I'd consider to be love songs. Anderson's California films are sort of like character studies meeting psychodrama meeting cultural inquiries. Anderson isn't about to tell you what Inherent Vice is about, though I'm more than a little convinced that's because he refuses to define his films at all. Anderson isn't afraid to simply ask questions that may or may not be answered by the end of his films, and it seems like more than a few folks will get to the end of Inherent Vice mouthing the words "WTF" as they leave the theater.
So be it.
Inherent Vice, from my own experience, is as much about the shifting and clashing of cultures as it is that noirish framework that keeps us entertained while Anderson is building a much bigger statement. It's a discussion worth having now, of course, as progressives seek a social shifting toward greater diversity and social justice while those who cling to a more disciplined and structured society go fucking apeshit at the thought of losing control.
In other words, I think Anderson made this film intentionally and there's a reason it follows the equally biting and brilliant The Master.
Inherent Vice lives and breathes on Joaquin Phoenix's ability to bring it all to life without turning it all into a caricature. Phoenix is up to the task, bringing Doc Sportello kicking and screaming into a decade where trying to live out his hippie love ideals may just mean that he gets his ass kicked a lot. The film also serves up a truly breakout performance from Katherine Waterston as the sultry and sirenish Shasta, whose presence throughout the film is memorable but whose raw authenticity in a nearly film ending erotic scene is simply outstanding work. Josh Brolin may have turned in his best work to date as Lt. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, whose dismay at the declining of American ideals will likely look more than a little familiar to anyone who is looking around the world these days. Benicio Del Toro makes the most of a relatively slight role as Doc's attorney.
The supporting players in Inherent Vice have been equally cast with care, not surprising given this is an Anderson film, with Reese Witherspoon hitting it out of the ballpark along with a terrific Eric Roberts and Owen Wilson. Martin Short is being really selective these days with his film work, an approach that really pays off here as he's absolutely mesmerizing in a far too brief amount of screen time. I'd always wondered if Anderson would ever cast Maya Rudolph, his real life wife, and he finally does it here with memorable results.
Jonny Greenwood's original score is easily one of 2014's best, while every aspect of the film's tech credits manages to add up to a film that thought provoking, funny, sensitive, insightful and just plain weird.
In other words, yeah, this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film and, yeah, he's done it again.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic