There are very few times when a film seems to consider its own plot pretty much besides the point while also making said plot as dense as possible, but then again Inherent Vice isn’t your average film. Highly regarded filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has perhaps made his most unusual movie to date, and that’s saying something. In adapting author Thomas Pynchon‘s novel of the same name (the first time a Pynchon adaptation has hit the screen too), Anderson has made a strange beast that’s part drama, part mystery, part, thriller, and part stoner comedy. It’s a hybrid that pulsates with drug fueled paranoia and is as hard to decipher as you think. Yes, it’s got an absurdly dense plot that PTA is almost daring you to understand, but it’s also got Joaquin Phoenix doing some hilarious slapstick comedy, along with a scene stealing supporting turn from Josh Brolin. Throw in the expected brilliance from Anderson regulars like composer Johnny Greenwood and cinematographer Robert Elswit, not to mention Anderson’s own talents, and you have something that’s not another modern classic like we’re accustomed from the filmmaker, but rather something unique and even more niche than usual. Boogie Nights and Magnolia are Anderson’s pinnacle in my book, while last time out he approached brilliance with The Master. Here, he doesn’t reach that point with Inherent Vice, nor has he particularly made an awards vehicle, but he still has crafted something that’s basically a must see for cinephiles. Somehow, Anderson makes narrative incoherence work in the favor of Inherent Vice. Go figure there. We don’t have another masterpiece of PTA’s, but it’s still something that’s distinctively his own.
In adapting Pynchon’s novel, Anderson goes heavy on the plot, but without the need to really ever explain what’s going on. As such, a synopsis is more or less useless. I will say that our protagonist is Doc Sportello (Phoenix), a private eye who is drawn into a case that’s both personal and one in which he’s immediately in over his head. The year is 1970, so the looseness of the 60’s is over, with an end to the counterculture on the horizon. As such, Doc seems almost like a relic from the past, especially to his antagonist Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Brolin), a detective who’s got it out for him. The trouble for Doc begins when his ex Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) arrives at his door looking for help. Her current beau, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is in trouble. Doc listens, but almost immediately, and well before he can really look into anything, Mickey and Shasta are gone, leaving him little to work with. Still, Doc begins sniffing around, quickly running into weirdo after weirdo, including musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), Coy’s wife Hope (Jena Malone), a bizarre doctor (Martin Short) with a taste for good times, and Doc’s current flame Penny (Reese Witherspoon), an assistant District Attorney. Doc stumbles around, hoping to solve the case, but mostly smoking pot and being confused, much like we are. There are a few really amusing sequences though, including when Doc gets distracted in an erotic massage parlor and Brolin’s first scene in the film. They lend a lightness to what otherwise could have been overbearing confusion, and I haven’t even mentioned the movie’s narrator (Joanna Newsom), who’s also a peripheral character in the story as well. Oh my.
Even if someone gets nothing else out of the film, the acting has to be something worth fawning over. This is easily the funniest that Joaquin Phoenix has ever been, with the same going for Josh Brolin too. Phoenix is our lead and who we spend almost every second with, so his physical humor is all the more impressive. He’s not quite on the level of Her or The Master here, but it’s an excellent performance for sure. His scenes with Brolin especially are great. As for Brolin, he’s so deadpan here that it’s impossible not to laugh. This is an even better version of what he did in Men in Black 3, if you want to make a comparison. They’re the male highlights, along with the one scene that Martin Short shows up in, though he’s just silly and nothing to get too excited over. The other notable performance comes from Katherine Waterston, who shows real star quality. She’s vulnerable and tough, all at the same time. One scene in particular with her and Phoenix towards the end is incredibly brave. Among the supporting players mentioned above, Jena Malone and Owen Wilson do very solid work as well with limited screen time, while Eric Roberts and Reese Witherspoon are a step down, yet still fine. There’s also Joanna Newsom, who mostly is our narrator. Her voice is hypnotic, I’ll give her that. The rest of the cast includes some big name cameos from the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Michael K. Williams, and more, but it’s really Brolin, Phoenix, and Waterston who impress the most.
Anderson always seems to be working on a different wavelength than anyone else who would have made the same film, and that’s true again here. Inherent Vice is all about mood, almost floating along as things just sort of happen to its characters. Visually, it’s very nice to look at, partly due to Elswit’s lensing of course, though it’s not as elegant as some of Anderson’s previous films. His direction is looser than ever before, and so is his writing, which doesn’t pop like it usually does. On the other hand, the music from Greenwood is as good as ever, so this is hardly a misfire from PTA. If anything, it’s good work that only seems a step down because of the sheer magnitude of the films he’s given us before. I think what it also comes down to is that Pynchon’s novel (and his writing in general) doesn’t easily lend itself to a cinematic adaptation and Anderson didn’t choose to simplify things for his audience. Not one bit.
Overall, I’m still not 100% sure what to make of Inherent Vice, which puts me in good company among my colleagues, but I know that it wasn’t an unenjoyable time at the movies, so my thumb is up. I’m sure plenty of folks are going to be confused by this one, but Anderson aficionados perhaps will even see that as a plus. It’s definitely a film distinctly his own. Mainly for the acting and the unusual tone on display, this is one not to miss. Don’t go in expecting an Oscar player though. Even if it scores an Academy Award nomination or two (and don’t bet on that necessarily), it’s something far odder and less easily pinned down. Inherent Vice is something all its own.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!