Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is defined by a weed haze that carries through every frame of the film. It’s a stoner neo-noir with red herrings galore and a mystery that probably makes sense if under the influence of some mind-altering drug. That being said, it’s a fantastic compilation of vignettes that are all viewed through the lens of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a Los Angeles detective in 1970 who seems to be a generally kind man. He enjoys indulging in drugs and alcohol at any given time, but remains an honorable detective that aims to help others however he can. He becomes entangled in a strange web of crimes, some involving kidnapping and murder, but the story remains viewed through his murky mug as his character unfolds in a more logical, nuanced manner than the narrative itself. The strengths of Anderson’s films emerge within his compassionate lead characters whenever they arise, and Inherent Vice stays true to that success.
The story opens with Doc’s recovery from a relationship with his long-time fling, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She spouts ideas about her current lover, Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose wife might be aiming to commit him to a loony bin. Almost as soon as that long-winded conversation at the beginning ends, the story wanders around many strange locales in Los Angeles, ranging from a random prostitution house to the offices of a high-end business man played by Martin Short. Doc, during all of this craziness, finds great remedies in drugs, naturally, as most did during the tumultuous time of the late 1960s/early 1970s. The hippie movement was running rampant at the time, with free love and acceptance of all being a message pushed forth. Granted, a little indulgence in paraphernalia was a given too, leading to a malignant approach from standard law enforcement. One of those men is Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a man that constantly finds Doc to be a thorn in his side.
Watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film isn’t meant to be a coherent experience. The plot is foggy and vague, with most conversations full of people speaking in questions or confusion. That’s a testament to Thomas Pynchon’s insane novel as well as Anderson’s equally manic script. It’s rare to see a film wander around a familiar city in such unfamiliar ways, looking at the seedy underbelly and unidentifiable wealthy landscapes as if they are commonplace. Not only that, but the story uses all of these different cases that Doc uncovers as a means of delightfully throwing a wrench in the audience’s expectations. There are times when I found the film impenetrable or indecipherable, a complaint that many struck with There Will Be Blood and The Master. Those films featured far less identifiable protagonists; Anderson’s films that work the strongest showcase likable or sympathetic people, like Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love. Inherent Vice, shockingly, is one of the latter.
I considered watching the film a second time before reviewing, but I felt that was unfair. It’s a deliberately hazy experience that most people will only see once; coming out of a film, I feel that the first impression is usually the best to write about, regardless of the chance that potentially occurs after multiple viewings. I enjoyed the central performances and found the film often hilarious. Phoenix is delightful, as always, in the lead, providing the audience with a central figure that they can like while also seemingly laughing at his woeful encounters. Waterston is terrific in her supporting turn, too; a romantic scene between her Shasta and Doc that lasts as a seven-minute long take is one of the year’s best scenes. Yet as I grasp at a larger meaning for the film, my hand falls through empty-handed like a ghost. There’s personal tragedy, strong characters, and plenty of humor, which ends up being enough for a terrifically enjoyable PTA experience. Inherent Vice is a cinematic whirlwind.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)