Inherent Vice is the latest from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon’s work is often characterized by its density and difficulty. As such, some said Vice could not be successfully adapted for the screen.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a haplessly stoned private investigator living in 1970’s Los Angeles. Doc is approached one night by his ex-lover Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks him to look into the disappearance of real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a man who has been having an affair on his wife Sloan (Serena Scott Thomas) with Shasta. Shasta claims that Sloan has plotted to kidnap Wolfmann and admit him to an insane asylum. Doc, seemingly still in love with Shasta, agrees to help, not knowing exactly the depths that he is diving into with the case.
Beyond Wolfmann, Doc agrees to help ex-heroin addict Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) find her dead husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom she believes is still alive. Doc also is approached by ex-convict Tariq Kahlil (Michael K. Williams), who hires the PI to track down Aryan Brotherhood member Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson). All of these apparently disparate assignments soon begin to converge, as Doc realizes people’s connections with one another with the help of brutish actor-turned-cop Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Deputy DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), and Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn), who kind of just hangs out with Doc and doesn’t serve any other purpose. This is all without mentioning the rebellious, coked-up daughter of one of Doc’s former clients who is being taken advantage of by crazed doctor Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short). Or the Prussian hired gun brought in by the police to carry out hits for them (Peter McRobbie).
You following the expository elements of the plot so far? No? That’s okay, it really doesn’t matter in the long run.
Yes, the plot is convoluted for no higher purpose other than to serve the neo-noir period piece that Anderson is trying to translate. But that is how Pynchon intended it. The book is similarly entangled with characters who weave in and out of each others’ timelines while Doc fumbles through them looking to connect the dots. That is part of what makes the book enjoyable to read. And it’s also a big reason why it seemed like an impossible book to adapt. As such, I’m not going to point fingers at Anderson for the messiness of the plot, because it is an intentional mess. However, where the book made all of these chaotic scenes humorous and worthwhile, the movie lets a lot of the same scenes fall flat. Some scenes in this movie drag on, and, with the audience knowing little as to why the scene matters in the larger scope of the narrative, they are left to question why they are watching it in the first place.
There are a few notable exceptions that work against this dullness, however. The best part of this movie, by far, is the chemistry between Phoenix and Brolin. Every fourth or fifth scene, they will be duking it out one-on-one, and every one of these scenes are fantastic. There are times in this film where the charisma of Phoenix’s vacant and hazy Doc churns to a standstill, but this never happens when he shares the screen with Brolin. And this is largely because Brolin has the best acting performance in this movie. The argument can be made that, due to the sheer number of characters in this film, the only characters who truly show any sort of development or heart are Doc, Bigfoot (and possibly Coy and Shasta). This would leave most of the other actors to do their best with characters who have nothing to say for themselves. I would counter this argument by gesturing toward Martin Short, who has an ecstatically hilarious performance as a seedy drug doctor.
Overall, this movie is a long winding road that leads to nowhere. That isn’t to say that there aren’t moments along the way that are worth watching, but the bad seems to outweigh the good here.
After that last line, it is probably a good idea to explain why I’m rating this as a “Like It” rather than a “Leave It.” A huge part of it is Josh Brolin’s performance. A somewhat smaller part is Joaquin Phoenix’s. But another part of it may be my faith in Paul Thomas Anderson as a filmmaker. I viewed The Master with the same indecisiveness as I did this one, not wanting to trash it but also not willing to claim that it was something better than it was. Of the Anderson films I’ve seen (and there are probably two that I haven’t gotten around to), The Master is the worst, in my opinion. And Vice doesn’t seem to be very redeeming for him.
I don’t want to say that Anderson is going downhill, considering he made one of my favorite movies of all time. I just really want to see his next film be something spectacular.
Inherent Vice may not be my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it still has some merit to it. Also, if you don’t recognize the name Paul Thomas Anderson, I strongly recommend you dig into his work. You won’t regret it. You can find all of his films through the links below:
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Inherent Vice? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)