NYFF Review: P.T. Anderson's Hazy 'Inherent Vice' is Stoner's Delight
by Alex Billington
October 6, 2014
Is this what happens when you get too high? Perhaps. Over the weekend, the New York Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, Inherent Vice, starring Joaquin Phoenix as "Doc" Sportello, the stoner private detective character from Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name. A very faithful adaptation, the film is a smoke-filled mystery that unfurls like Chinatown if Jake kept getting stoned every five minutes. Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, the look and feel is spot on – it's like they made this in the 70s and time traveled forward to 2014 just to premiere it. But does it make any sense? Not really.
Inherent Vice is a big departure in tone and style for Paul Thomas Anderson, as it doesn't really feel like anything he has made before, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's rather refreshing to see him attempt something unique, especially something as bold as adapting Thomas Pynchon while keeping the noir angle mixed with stoner sensibilities. Sure, it's easy to compare the film to Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep or the Coen Bros' The Big Lebowski, but it feels much more like Roman Polanski's Chinatown in its seriousness and story, with the "far out, man" haziness of Cheech & Chong. At the end of it all, does it even really matter how the story wraps up? Does it matter if he rescues the damsel in distress, or solves the case? Not really.
What really matters are all the moments inbetween, and this film certainly has its moments. Inherent Vice follows Doc as he attempts to solve a confusing, wacky mystery that was dumped on him by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (played by Katherine Waterston) which seems to involve the LAPD and some of LA's mobsters, like the sleazy Mickey Wolfmann (played by Eric Roberts). Not many characters get that much screentime, with most of them getting about five minutes of wacky "what the fuck is going on?" glory before they're offed or before they head off into the hazy streets of LA. Just like being stoned, the film often forgets where it is, or what's going on, or who's doing what in the middle of a scene, then continues without much explanation.
At its core, Inherent Vice seems to be a love story, or maybe just a story about how love screws things up, as encapsulated by the tagline in the trailer: "Love usually leads to trouble." Especially when it involves Doc Sportello. While this may sound repetitive, it's another one of those films that warrants multiple viewings to understand completely, but I'm just not sure if I'm looking forward to revisiting this any time soon, and that is the problem. It's a very dense film, featuring discussions and dialogue that is either fascinating or goofy (at times, both), and a rambling plot that even the most keen (and sober) viewers will have a hard time following. Maybe reading the book will help, or maybe it won't? Even the characters seemed a bit confused.
At the very least, the film has all the usual hallmarks of a polished Paul Thomas Anderson feature: excellent performances from everyone in the cast, an outstanding soundtrack that features a near-perfect selection of songs in addition to Jonny Greenwood's score, smooth cinematography and long-takes that let the actors show off, and of course, a vast story that ends in a completely different place then where it starts. The noir mystery is actually the least interesting part about this film; it's the characters and their situations, the ways they react and connect and disconnect, those are the most important. Similar to The Big Lebowski, it's those wacky stoner lines and hilarious Doc moments where we'll find the most meaning, and the most to discuss.
Aside from Joaquin Phoenix, who is always mesmerizing to watch in roles as out there as this one, the stand outs in the cast include Josh Brolin as LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, a surprise appearance by Martin Short as drug-loving dentist Dr. Blatnoyd, Benicio Del Toro as Sauncho Smilax, Jena Malone as Hope Harlingen, and Joanna Newsom as Sortilège. Plus there's also Katherine Waterston as the irresistible Shasta, placed precariously at the center of this story. As is the case with pretty much every PTA film, there's much to appreciate about every conversation and interaction even if it seems like a fleeting moment of odd stoner confusion. It all must mean something, right? It has to. That, or someone smoked way too much pot.
I will fully admit that I'm probably not the best one to analyze the film, as others have been able to enjoy the rambling much more than I did. My friend Jordan Raup of The Film Stage saw it twice in one day, writing in his Letterboxd review: "The approach took me aback on first viewing, but on the second -- which should be a requirement, as everything wonderfully coheres into place -- I appreciated the character work to a much greater extent." He calls it a "layered stoner noir" and "PTA's most empathetic film." It is all of those things, and much more. Full disclosure: I was not stoned while screening this film. But maybe I should've been? Or maybe it would've only made things more confusing. Do I believe it would've made a difference? Not really.