inherent_vice_1Year: 2014
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer(s): Paul Thomas Anderson, novel by Thomas Pynchon
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 148 mins

Synopsis: In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend. (Source)

If you’ve ever wondered what a Paul Thomas Anderson stoner film would be like, look no further than Inherent Vice. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, the film is a drug-addled haze of larger-than-life characters, rude humor and a central mystery with more ridiculous twists and turns than you’ll be able to remember – and I mean that all as a compliment! Those looking for the deep introspection and hard truths of Anderson’s previous films will be a bit shocked to see the master director simply having a bit of a laugh, but I’d say it’s well deserved. While the film borders at times on being about nothing, Anderson’s handle on his incredible cast cuts deeper than surface frivolity to lightly examine the relationships that come back to us when we least expect. In essence, this satire of 70’s noir doesn’t take itself seriously, but in Anderson’s more than capable hands, has plenty of style and wit to boot.

The story centers around Larry “Doc” Sportello, a low-rent, private dick hippie. One day, Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth turns up on his door with an unbelievable predicament. It turns out that her millionaire boyfriend has unwittingly found himself in the middle of a sinister plot, perpetrated by his wife and her boyfriend. Weighing her options and how much loyalty she owes to her current lover, she asks Doc to see what he can find out about the shady deal before it all goes down. Then all of a sudden, Shasta’s missing and Doc’s deep into tangled web of shady cops, a drug cartel, skinhead bikers, and a real estate baron who’s missing in action. If that sounds like a lot to swallow, it is – and it’s up to Doc and us, the viewer, to sort it all out!

While it’s easy to criticize the film for it’s scattershot, convoluted plot, it’s actually liberating to see Anderson have fun without the crutch of clear coherence or logic. This film really is something you experience more than you understand, and it’s nice to see a story that draws a distinct line between those two very different things. Anderson films every scene as if it’s coming from the conscience of his hippie protagonist, and it gives everything a very disorienting quality. We never know what’s real or not, the way characters just appear and reappear, especially with Doc’s seemingly omnipresent friend, Sortilège (played brilliantly by Joanna Newsom) who also doubles as the film’s narrator. Needless to say, our protagonist is never in control, fumbling from one moment to the next in an escalating comedy of errors in which each encounter is more weird and wild than the last. There are a few gun fights, some dead bodies, and lots of confusion, as Doc finds out that he’s but one small cog in a perpetually unpredictable mind trip, leaving both him and the audience on an eternal chase for something that can’t quite be attained. Throughout the ribald humor and the double-crosses though, there’s a poignancy that permeates the atmosphere, mixing sly laughs with unexpected human tension.

inherent_vice_3To offset the film’s twisty story, are a cast of characters who keep the film from drowning in itself. Joaquin Phoenix turns in another great lead performance as Doc, the perpetually stoned sleuth – he’s an instant classic akin to the Lebowski’s Dude. Phoenix lends the character enough eccentricity while still keeping him relatable and lovable. There’s something irresistible about the way Phoenix completely loses himself in the role, stumbling through each scene with infectious irreverence. The other scene stealer is Josh Brolin, as Lt. Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. He’s a part time actor (a total Reagan knockoff) pulling double duty as a detective who may know more than he lets on. Brolin gets the majority of the film’s dick jokes, perpetually eating a frozen banana and even once threatening to shove it up someone’s butt. Of course, it’s all played with a straight face, with Brolin’s hulking physicality and aloof delivery offsetting how silly he looks with a flat top. Though these two are my favorite of the film, there isn’t a weak link here, including Katherine Waterston, the dame behind Doc’s distress, Shasta Fay Hepworth, who has an almost unearthly quality to the way she caries herself, elevating her character to something almost mythical.

I have a feeling that Inherent Vice is only going to become more and more admired as time goes by, even if it ends up being the black sheep of Anderson’s oeuvre. From the groovy soundtrack of 70’s pop and haunting strings of Jonny Greenwood to Anderson’s sophisticated presentation (which is more than the film probably needs), this is a director having fun, and it’s contagious.