Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Joanna Newsom
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Paul Thomas Anderson's faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice is groovy, far out, and probably the closest anyone has come in depicting what it's like trying to have a sensible conversation while being stoned out of your gord. Of course, this being a PTA joint, it's much more than that too; a narrative-defying plunge down the rabbit hole featuring elements of pulp, noir, stoner comedy, and pangs of nostalgia for a time that once was. It will likely be Anderson's most polarizing work yet; a purposefully meandering series of loosely connected scenes featuring red-herrings, misdirection, strange tonal shifts, and in detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) a perma-fried central protagonist just trying to keep up.
It makes sense that Sportello is always behind the eight ball since as an audience, we are always a few steps out of sync with Pynchon's densely layered prose and Anderson's deftly underplayed interpretation of that prose. The plot, which let's be honest, doesn't really matter, involves the P.I. looking into the disappearance of billionaire tycoon Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), who is also involved with his ex-flame Shasta Fey (Katherine Waterston). There's a saxophone-playing surf rocker (Owen Wilson) on the lam, a straight-laced cop (Josh Brolin), constantly busting Doc's chops, and a litany of other characters filtering in and out of the pot-fueled narrative; including a lawyer (Benicio Del Toro, conjuring less antic visions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) dopers, sex massage parlor owners, an evil loan shark, and a coke-addled dentist (an unhinged Martin Short). There's also a nefarious corporation called The Golden Fang, thug-like hit men, and recovering addicts populating Anderson's distillation of Pynchon's semi-satirical, deeply astute mourning of 1960s counterculture.
To say that the plot doesn't matter is only partially true, since there's an awful lot of plot to get through and Anderson remains reverent to the text. But the irrelevancy of the twisty narrative (which, like all great noirs, grows nonsensical early on and only gets more confusing as it hums along), is only important insofar as it highlights just how lost and yearning the characters are. One of the film's greatest surprises, therefore, is it's melancholic conjuring of sadness for a simpler era; one before drugs took their toll on free-loving hippies, the Manson cult terrifiying suburban neighborhoods, and the shell-shocked paranoia of post-Vietnam America. Though Inherent Vice is structured as a labyrinth of pot-infused moments playing off actor's reactions, half-muttered dialogue, and Anderson's carefully controlled camera zoom-ins, it's also a brilliant distillation of a particular time and place.
The use of Joanna Newsom as an omnipresent on-screen narrator is also key in untangling the film's go with the flow, man attitude in that she's used as both a character interacting with Doc as well as a way of getting out Pynchon's colorful musings. Newsom's folksy delivery and astrological ramblings gives the film a much-needed feminist edge that somewhat counteracts the sight of undulating naked female bodies and the leering male gaze populating the scenery here. Through her narration, pieces of the interweaving narrative can be gleamed, but again, it's more about the trip than the destination. More crucially, it's the acting here that really carries the day, as each scene unfolds with an unpredictable playfulness allowing some truly talented thespians to go all in on Anderson's giddy stylistic preoccupations. As Doc, Phoenix gives the loosest, most warmly resonant performance of his career. He not only navigates the broadly comic scenes (a reaction shot involving a photograph is one of the funniest things in a film in many years), as well as more nuanced ones; such as his priceless response to Brolin's flat-topped cop Bigfoot Bjornsen eating a chocolate frozen banana. Doc is a funny, sad, pathetic, and ultimately endearing creation; a man whose drawn into a web of absurd threads that may or may not pay off, and whose permanently stoned demeanor suggests a collision of Cheech & Chong, "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski, and a laconically bemused Dashiell Hammett-type lead detective. It's a great performance in a film that absolutely needs it, since spending so much time with Doc is crucial to riding the hazy wave.
For all it's brilliant displays of acting, period-appropriate details (the cinematography by Robert Elswitt is spot-on without being kitschy) and Anderson's penchant for long-takes, dissolves, and zooms, Inherent Vice is ultimately about recapturing a lost sense of innocence. The dichotomy of placing somber thematic ideas in the middle of what essentially (at it's most simplistic) a stoner noir comedy is downright bold, since most will either be so confused by the odd tone or delighted by the offbeat humor to register just what Pynchon, and by extension, Anderson, is getting at. Truthfully, Inherent Vice also recalls Anderson's last film The Master in that it has a love story at it's center. In that previous film, the relationship between Freddie Quell (Phoenix, again) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) played almost like a strangely platonic love affair. Though Doc's yearning for the "girl that got away" represented by Waterston's break-out performance as Shasta is key here, it's not really the core relationship at the heart of the film. Instead, it's the love-hate relationship between Doc and Bigfoot that lingers most, seen most obviously in their many meetings where opposing views of where the country is heading are dispensed. Brolin absolutely nails the hippie-hating cop who looks down on Doc's freewheeling lifestyle, but there are also hints of sadness to his performance. For example, the final scene between them is a jaw-dropper that highlights this point, featuring a smoking joint and mounds of marijuana ashes that's both comically heightened as well as strangely poignant.
The best way to enjoy Inherent Vice is probably through the lens of a smoky haze, but there's also the notion that Anderson is attempting to approximate the loopy disorientation one feels while under the influence; so much so that much of the humor follows a kind of nonsensical through-line. Truthfully, though the film is going mostly for laughs, it has just as much to say about the waning counterculture movement crashing into the conservative tidal wave in the early 70s as the collision of religion and capitalism in There Will Be Blood; it's just that this time everything is exaggerated for comedic effect rather than delivered through the prism of brooding self-seriousness. Through the eyes of these lost, damaged, sad characters lost in a literal and metaphorical fog left over from the flower-child drug party, Anderson plunges us into the headspace of lost time in a way that's unlike anything seen in this particular genre. Hilarious, bizarre, purposefully confounding, and refusing the vicarious cinematic thrills of some of Anderson's more showy films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Inherent Vice is Anderson working in a "lower" genre, free of self-mythologizing constraints and the need to impress us with technical bravado.