Paul Thomas Anderson won me over with his first four movies, (Hard Eight; Boogie Nights; Magnolia; Punch Drunk Love), so much so that I’ve been able to give a pass to the subsequent movies that didn’t win me over as much, (mainly, The Master, and to a lesser extent, There Will Be Blood). As a result, I’ll always go into any P.T. Anderson movie willingly and excitedly. And I’m happy to say Inherent Vice joins the list of movies I don’t have to give a begrudging pass to.
Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, (an author as notoriously difficult to adapt as he is to actually meet, although rumor has it he has a cameo in the movie), Inherent Vice is a film noir on pot. If you come out of it a little confused about the intricacies of the mystery, the plot, or basically, all of it, that’s probably the exact reaction you should have. It’s as close as you can get to watching a movie stoned without actually getting stoned.
Set in 1970 Southern California, in the fictional town of Gordita Beach, the story centers on “Doc” Sportello, (Joaquin Phoenix), an unlikely private detective who spends most of his day partially, if not completely high. He’s full-on hippie, or “hippie scum” as his frequent nemesis “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an ultra straight-laced LA cop, calls him.
As is the case in many a film noir tale, the story opens with a woman in need of some detective work. This particular woman turns out to be Doc’s ex, Shasta, (Katherine Waterson), and she’s involved in a scheme to get her current boyfriend, a rich real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann, (Eric Roberts) locked up in a looney bin, in order to snag his money, all in cahoots with Wolfmann’s wife and her boyfriend. She wants Doc’s help to get her out of it.
That part’s pretty clear. But from then on, the mystery get weird, and then weirder. There’s also a Nazi motorcycle gang; a saxophone player for a series of surf bands who may or may not be dead; a drug conglomerate called the Golden Fang, which is also the name of a boat that may have floated off with Shasta; and some very corrupt dentists.
The 60’s are over, and hippies have had their heyday. Now every last one of them could just as easily be the next Manson or one of his minions, at least according to the cops and the feds that are constantly floating around Doc. Some of Inherent Vice may seem familiar. There are definitely apt comparisons to be made to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. But I think the main similarity in all three is lead characters who are clearly not made for their respective times. And poor Doc hasn’t quit fully grasped that his time has ended yet.
As funny and weird and memorable as the plot, setting, and supporting cast may be, (and they include Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jean Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Donovan, former porn star Belladonna, and Joanna Newsom, who also narrates), the movie has to succeed or fail based on the strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. And he…is…stupendous. He plays stoned better than any actor I’ve ever seen. There are moments in the film that just hold on his face, as he’s looking at someone, doing his best to comprehend what he’s seeing, not getting it, and then trying again, that are so on point, and funny, and perfect, that I’m sure a lot of people will be convinced it’s not acting at all. While the movie itself isn’t perfect–there are times when the plot really needs to make sense, but doesn’t, and the ending is both drawn out and abrupt–I’d have no problem watching it again, just to get another chance to look at Joaquin looking.