Review: P.T. Anderson's 'Inherent Vice' is a Strange, Wonderful Trip
by Jeremy Kirk
December 11, 2014
Charles Manson really fucked this country up. Sure, a dozen contributing factors over decades have led America to where it is now, but those 1969 murders undoubtedly shook things up. The hippie movement and free love became ostracized, beaten down by the fears and paranoia suddenly knocking on every American door, especially in California. That’s the world shown in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation, Inherent Vice, a film with an equal hand in parody and satire than it does webbed detective pulp. Immaculately presented, the film proves even when Anderson’s tongue is firmly in his cheek, his eye and feel for storytelling are still full of depth and grand design. It can only be described in two words: Right on!
The time and place: Gordito Beach, California in 1970. Within this drug-soaked, slightly paranoid setting, Anderson, adapting the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, introduces us to Larry “Doc” Sportello, a “pothead” private detective played by Joaquin Phoenix. Doc is approached by Shasta, an ex-girlfriend played by Katherine Waterston, to thwart the kidnapping of her current lover, a wealthy California real-estate mogul. Soon all manner of investigation heads in Doc’s general direction, all seemingly interconnected with the same people, corporations, and events all coming together. Between his clients, the law - particularly LAPD Detective and perfectly-named “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) - and the oddities that cultivate the Southern California locale, Doc begins facing his own paranoia and questioning whether the threat is real or all part of his milky, pot-filled haze.
It’s far from a debate to say that P.T. Anderson is a genius filmmaker. His films since the late ‘90s have become event pictures for the grandiosity of their presentation matched with simple, human stories. Boogie Nights worked as a wonderful inside look at the shifting and impactful porn industry of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s also a movie about Eddie Adams, an unimpressive kid who skyrocketed to stardom - and an okay music career - as Dirk Diggler. The stories provide the details. Anderson’s worlds gloriously shot by cinematographer and regular Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit provide the scale. With Inherent Vice we get a taste of Anderson’s sense of humor.
That’s not to say Inherent Vice is an out-and-out comedy. Even Punch Drunk Love, the movie Anderson did with Adam Sandler, is bittersweet, oddly goofy, and an acquired taste of sorts. The same could probably be said for Inherent Vice, a movie that may benefit from being in the same mindset as its protagonist. I don’t want to tell you how to watch a movie, but Anderson’s melodic pacing and endless loop of quirky situations and dialogue almost require the viewer to be in a specific state of mind. But that’s your prerogative.
It’s in that dialogue, endlessly quotable, and its melodic pacing where Inherent Vice ends up grabbing you. Joanna Newsom provides narration that gradually slides the story’s direction, sometimes offering well-placed exposition. Sometime’s she gets confused. It’s all part of Anderson’s plan as he presents us with Pynchon’s meandering tale. Long takes hanging on muffled conversations lulls your focus in to the point where every scene feels like a dream sequence or a foggy hallucination crafted in Doc’s blasted mind. With disjointed dialogue and oddball antics from the supporting players - Bigfoot’s fondness for frozen bananas is a favorite - the film appears at times to be the actors just dicking around. It isn’t until you focus on the dialogue that Anderson’s fluidity comes through in droves. While looking like a mess of sardonic ideas Inherent Vice ends up connecting the dots of a rather nicely constructed mystery found within. To that end Anderson’s structure for his film is an exact replica of his protagonist.
Filling the role of Doc Sportello, Phoenix appears to be on dream street half the time, shuffling his feet and peering at the world around him through heavy slits. I don’t even want to think about the method acting gone into inhabiting the part, but inhabit it Phoenix does flawlessly. His buffoonery and comedic timing are as believable, as natural, as Doc’s periodic moments of brilliant deduction, and the spots of beauty Inherent Vice has tucked away in a few of its corners are made all the more genuine by the actor’s presence.
It certainly helps that he has a full cavalcade of impressive acting talents around which to perform. Benicio Del Toro playing Doc’s lawyer and Owen Wilson as a musician-turned-informant who has faked his own death are just a small sampling of the performances to expect. Reese Witherspoon shows up for a few scenes as a deputy DA who is also Doc’s current fling. The actress’ inclusion makes for a nice Walk the Line reunion the few times we see her. Standing out among the herd are Brolin and Waterston, though, each holding their own in their every, respective scene. Whether standing up against Phoenix’s quirky histrionics or Anderson’s wild aesthetic, these two shine through to give us a little comedy in the case of Brolin and a lot of heart in the case of Waterston. The entirety of the cast, however, makes for one helluva complete ensemble, and that's to say nothing of the brief brilliance brought on by the presence of Martin Short.
There is a ton to take in with Inherent Vice, so much that a single view isn’t nearly enough. That’s typically the case with PT Anderson, a filmmaker who is always trying for more than just simple storytelling. Inherent Vice is complex, at times confusing, and its triply atmosphere and general weirdness jam-packed into every scene, maybe every shot, makes for worthwhile dissection long after the movie is over. With humor and warmth Anderson delivers a detective caper with an abundance of layers and, yes, a little paranoia. But, like Doc Sportello himself, through aimlessness and, yet, an idea of clarity, Inherent Vice bounces its way to a grand, end-of-the-day victory.