At first glance, Inherent Vice might seem to be a detective story. Look a little closer, however, and it becomes clear that this is Paul Thomas Anderson's idea of a comedy. There's slapstick, lowbrow material, and enough strange characters and "completely different" moments to make Monty Python smile. But because this is Anderson, the humor bubbles under a thin layer of sophistication that might confuse some viewers into taking the film more seriously than is intended. Based (with a surprising degree of faithfulness) on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice plays best as an offbeat parody with antecedents as diverse as The Big Sleep, Cheech & Chong, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As prestige pictures go, this one is decidedly idiosyncratic, but that could describe the overall arc of Anderson's career.
The whole of Inherent Vice takes place in the haze of smoke from the pot incessantly smoked by the lead character, private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello (played with low-key intensity by Joaquin Phoenix). By intent, there's not a lot of energy in the film; it's mellow and slow-moving. Visually, it consists of long takes. There are times when the dialogue rambles and other occasions when it appears inspired by Raymond Chandler. Joanna Newsom's voiceover provides viewers with astrological information about the characters. By intention, it's all very bizarre and sometimes quite funny.
The film, set in 1970 Los Angeles, has such a strong sense of period that the setting, like Newsom's voiceovers, becomes almost a character. Anderson is no stranger to bringing an earlier era to life but, unlike Boogie Nights, he does this without a surfeit of pop tunes. There are a few but Inherent Vice relies more on Jonny Greenwood's score than on classic rock and remembered Top 40 hits of the day. Hair styles, clothing, repeated references to the (contemporary) Manson family, and décor add to the '70s illusion, but the most vital elements are the attitudes of the characters and the way they talk. Far out, man.
The average hard-boiled detective story often puts the lead character at the nexus of seemingly unrelated plot strands that are eventually revealed as interconnected. Inherent Vice sets up that way but in many cases the interweaving is no more than coincidence. In the end, it's all rather mundane with much of the paranoia being a product of weed-soaked imaginations. That's the fun of Inherent Vice - the viewer pays careful attention because there are a lot of details and character names but, in the end, the minutia doesn't matter. The story boils down to the interaction between a few key individuals.
The movie opens with Doc receiving a visit from his ex-lover, Shasta Fay Hepworth (a sultry Katherine Waterston). Shasta wants Doc to help her thwart a plot to commit her current lover, tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), into a mental asylum. Her visit is shrouded in secrecy and mystery and, shortly thereafter, she disappears. Things don't go well early in Doc's investigation. While visiting a massage parlor, he is knocked unconscious and wakes up lying next to a dead body with his nemesis, LA PD Detective Bigfoot Bjornson (Josh Brolin), towering over him. After being sprung by the police for lack of evidence, he takes on a second case - tracking down the "dead" husband of a grieving widow (Jenna Malone). The "dead man," musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), is very much alive but is working as an informant for the authorities and is "in too deep" to get out. And he appears to be knowledgeable about things happening in the Shasta/Mickey case.
Inherent Vice is a synthesis of small, satisfying moments. There are familiar faces in small parts - Reese Witherspoon, Michael K. Williams, Benicio del Toro, Maya Rudolph, and a delightfully off-the-wall Martin Short all appear. The narrative moves in unpredictable directions. Due in large part to a pair of on-target performances, the interaction between Brolin's Bigfoot and Doc is complex and not weighed down by buddy movie clichés. And there's a wonderful scene between Doc and Shasta that's dreamy and erotic. What the fully nude Katherine Waterston does with her foot would make Quentin Tarantino smile.
Inherent Vice is intellectually satisfying, often funny (more in a low-key manner than the over-the-top approach favored by mainstream comedies), and emotionally inert. The last quality is what separates this from Anderson's best films. We come to care a little about Doc but the characters in this movie drift through life in the smoky haze that surrounds everything and it keeps us from becoming truly invested in them. Inherent Vice is obviously the work of a talented filmmaker who's unafraid to take chances but is it the full package? I'd argue it's missing that one important ingredient that would elevate it to greatness: Anderson keeps that characters at too great a distance from the audience.
© 2014 James Berardinelli