A film review by Craig J. Koban January 18, 2015

INHERENT VICE jj
 

2014, R, 148 mins.

 

Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello  /  Josh Brolin as Bigfoot Bjornsen  /  Owen Wilson as Coy Harlingen  /  Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay Hepworth  /  Reese Witherspoon as Penny  /  Benicio Del Toro as Sauncho Smilax  /  Jena Malone as Hope Harlingen  /  Maya Rudolph as Petunia Leeway  /  Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd  /  Martin Donovan as Crocker Fenway  /  Eric Roberts as Mickey Wolfmann  /  Michael K. Williams as Tariq Khalil

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson  /  Based on Thomas Pynchon's novel

Back in the late 1990’s I was willing to go down just about any Paul Thomas Anderson cinematic rabbit hole with a real enthusiasm.  

Now…not so much.  

He proved two decades ago that he was one of the most singularly talented film directors of his generation, making two of the best films of the 1990’s in BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA.  The 2000’s, though, weren’t quite so kind to Anderson.  Disappointing movie experiments like 2002’s PUNCH DRUNK LOVE gave way to the better, but still flawed 2007’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which didn’t quite capture his eccentric brand of movie magic.  2012’s THE MASTER was a film that desperately wanted to attain greatness, but frustratingly fell short. 

Now comes INHERENT VICE, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon 2009 novel of the same name and a return to the decade that Anderson evoked rather masterfully in BOOGIE NIGHTS.  The director intuitively knows his way around the period details of the 70’s; INHERENT VICE is set in Anderson's birth year (1970) and in Southern California, which makes INHERENT VICE a bit more personal for the filmmaker.  More than ever, INHERENT VICE shows how adept Anderson is for making films with a distinct period design and personality; there’s rarely a moment in the film when you doubt the authenticity of its settings or time.  

Yet, INHERENT VICE kind of fails as a coherent, compelling, and rich who-dunnit mystery noir.  Pynchon’s novel has been lauded for its dense and complicated plotting, but Anderson’s adaptation of the material – kind of like the main character – is so shaggy, rough around the edges, and self-indulgently undisciplined at times that I was frequently spending more time trying to piece everything together to create a meaningful whole when I should have been enraptured by the whole experience.  At 148 minutes, INHERENT VICE, more often than not, becomes a disjointed and confounded endurance test. 

 

 

INHERENT VICE does contain, though, yet another fully committed performance by the great Joaquin Phoenix, a performer that has never backed away from a challenging role…or one that makes him look like an outlandish and misguided fool.  Anderson’s film opens in the fictional Gordita Beach, California with Shasta (a hypnotic Katherine Waterston) speaking with her ex-boyfriend – and Californian private eye – Doc (Phoenix).  The case – which I will try to disseminate as simply as I can – concerns Shasta’s lover and real estate magnate Mickey (a terribly underused Eric Roberts), who has been somehow drugged and held captive in an asylum of some sorts.  To Doc’s dismay, Shasta mysteriously disappears soon after speaking with him, which adds another layer of perplexing intrigue.  Things never seem to come naturally or easy for poor old Doc…perhaps because he’s still a hippie in a new generation that hates his kind…or that he’s in such a pot infused stupor half the time that he misses pertinent and important details when to are literally flung right in his face. 

While Doc tries to secure clues to Mickey’s whereabouts, he has a violent encounter with LAPD Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornson (a menacing Josh Brolin), but after attempts at arresting and charging Doc go nowhere the PI is allowed to go free, during which time he explores another case, this time involving locating the presumed dead husband of a widow (Jena Malone), but the husband (Owen Wilson) is very much alive, but working as a police informant for a very big case.  Doc then refocuses on clues for Mickey’s case, which leads him to his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and a shadowy criminal organization called The Golden Fang.  The more Doc – increasingly paranoid and filled with nagging self-doubt – peruses all angles of his multiple cases the more he draws attention from the wrong people.  

Anderson has always been known as a virtuoso actor’s director, and INHERENT VICE is no exception.  Phoenix – with his mutton-chopped sideburns, unkempt hair, and overall disheveled nature that makes him look like scrawny weed- token Wolverine – makes for one fascinatingly trippy movie gumshoe.  Phillip Marlow he ain’t.  Phoenix is complimented by some strong supporting performances, especially by Katherine Waterston, who makes her flower-child character have an ethereal aura of radiating sensuality and wounded vulnerability at the same time.  Josh Brolin, a criminally underrated actor, is quite superb as his buzz-cut, tough as nails, and hair-triggered cop with a fiery attitude.  Many of Brolin and Phoenix’s scenes pay off handsomely – and hysterically – for how these two polar opposite characters manage to get under each other’s skins with minimal effort.  Then there are some rather inspired and audacious casting choices, like Martin Short, who’s never been so vulgarly off-the-rails and amoral in a film role. 

The film is also peppered with many other dependable actors, like Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Michael K. Williams, and Benicio Del Toro, to name a few, but their appearances in the film are more glorified and disappointing cameos than meaty and substantial roles.  Characters sort of meandering in and out of the story – some appear and disappear at will, many are never heard from again afterwards – which leaves viewers perplexed as to what function they ultimately served in the story and how they related to each other and Doc.  INHERENT VICE is intrinsically a jigsaw-puzzle detective caper that’s complex, leaving the audience trying to pick up the clues alongside the main character and figure everything out.  Yet, Anderson doesn’t seem particularly interested in an organized and well laid-out narrative.  His script has so many roadblocks, detours, segues, double crosses, red herrings and so forth that trying to figure out what the entire film is actually about becomes a fruitless endeavor.  Anderson also manages to throw in a voiceover narration track (an astrologer, played by Joanna Newsom) that serves the purpose of commenting on Doc’s mental state and the bizarre series of events that unfold before him.  Regrettably, the off-screen narrator only seems to obtrusively confuse us even more. 

Now, there’s something to be said about Anderson wanting to make his film be an offbeat commentary on the detective noirs of the past and the ones that populated the 1970’s.  INHERENT VICE – largely because of Phoenix – is absurdly humorous at times, mostly because we bare witness to the psychedelic haze of confusion that Doc goes through in the film (he’s not a square-jawed, assured, and headstrong protagonist that usually typifies these genre efforts).  The film certainly has moments of slyness, but Anderson doesn’t fully embrace the satirical opportunities presented within.  That, and the film as a whole feels cold and clinical; it left me at an emotional distance.  What story thread am I really supposed to care about here…and what characters, for that matter?  INHERENT VICE is built upon an oblique fog and mishmash of weird characters colliding with one another in a story that, in turn, never coalesces with any level of symmetry or decipherability.  Even when the film journeyed towards a resolution I was left, in its wake, wondering whether Anderson really cared about who did it in his own who-dunnit.   

INHERENT VICE is such a rich looking and atmospheric film.  Maybe it’s one that Anderson wanted us to simply experience as a mood piece more so than as a compelling mystery thriller.  Yet, even when he teases us with a complex detective yarn the scope of the film truly goes beyond his reach, leaving him with no alternative but to focus on handsome period details and finely attuned performances, hoping that they would help override the film’s narrative impenetrability.  Anderson is indeed a bravura filmmaking artist.  He’s a daring original.  The movie world needs more of him.  Yet, this doesn’t excuse him from making a film as carelessly scattershot and misshapen as INHERENT VICE. 

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