THE STORY – In a California beach community, private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) tends to work his cases through a smoky haze of marijuana. One day, Shasta, a former lover, arrives out of the blue to plead for Doc’s help; it seems that Shasta’s current beau, rich real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann, has a wife who may be plotting to commit him to a mental hospital. When Mickey and Shasta both disappear, Doc navigates a psychedelic world of surfers, stoners and cops to solve the case.
THE CAST – Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone & Joanna Newsom
THE TEAM – Paul Thomas Anderson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 149 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
“Inherent Vice” is considered by many to be the black sheep of Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre. It’s sprawling in length, difficult to comprehend, and purposely devoid of the broad humor that makes noir comedies like “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005) such cult favorites. The online community has dubbed it “Incoherent Vice,” with the joke being that anyone who thinks it makes sense is probably smoking the same strain as the stoned main character. What the film lacks in accessibility however, it more than makes up for through creativity and audacity. “Inherent Vice” is, in the opinion of this humble writer, one of Anderson’s greatest achievements; a paean to lost love and a lost generation that still manages to fit snugly within his thematic wheelhouse. It asks a lot out of the viewer, but it promises so much more in return.
The film, set in 1970, opens with a mysterious woman and a private detective. The former is Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a reformed hippie, and the latter is Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), her ex-boyfriend. She lays a story on Doc about her current beau, real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who may be committed to an insane asylum as a means of dismantling his fortune. A reluctant Doc agrees to investigate, but he soon realizes that the case ties into a larger conspiracy involving a secret cult, a group of dentists, and an international drug ring known as the Golden Fang.
“Inherent Vice” is adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, which is an indirect way of saying that the plot is near impenetrable upon first viewing. Doc takes on a number of unusual side cases in his search for Wolfmann, some of which get resolved immediately and others which actually prove more important to the detective by the end of the film. In questioning a given character about a case, he may not ascertain the clues he’s looking for, but a random aside or snide comment may tie into one of his other cases, which in turn leads him further down the rabbit hole. At one point, a baffled Doc resorts to sitting on his floor and drawing a map of all the clients and suspects on his furniture. The plot does eventually make sense (subtitles are recommended), but the unrelenting, oftentimes subtle dispersal of information can be maddening to those who just wanted another “Lebowski.”
That’s not to say that comprehension of the plot is required to enjoy the film. Anderson counteracts the screenplay’s dense prose by assembling one of his finest ensemble casts to date, and the results are side-splitting. Josh Brolin steals each of his scenes as Bigfoot, a flat top cop who loathes hippies almost as much as his cookie-cutter lifestyle. His only joy seems to come from berating Doc (eating frozen bananas is a close second), but he can’t seem to leave the detective alone, adding yet another bizarre male friendship to the Anderson canon. Martin Short, Jena Malone, and Hong Chau all dazzle in brief roles that border on the absurd, while Owen Wilson and Benicio del Toro add interesting textures to exposition-heavy characters.
At the center of it all is Phoenix, who plays Doc with a perpetual glaze and a sad smile. The character’s recreational activities render him more passive than the average detective, but it makes his moments of lucidity all the more humorous, especially when he scribbles vaguely helpful tips in his notepad (“not hallucinating”, “something Spanish”). Phoenix’s talents as a physical performer are also evident here, as so much of the character is conveyed through double-takes and Buster Keaton-esque slapstick. Perhaps the best instance of this is when he dons a bad disguise to interview Wolfmann’s wife. He searches her house, taking giant, cartoonish steps as he passes the bedroom. Halfway through his routine, however, he realizes nobody is around and proceeds to walk normally. Similarly eccentric bits reveal themselves with each new viewing.
“Inherent Vice” may be the most comedic of Anderson’s films, but its core themes ensure that it falls in line with historical epics like “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “The Master” (2012). All three films cover transitional periods in Southern California history, from the turn-of-the-century oil boom and post-WWII cultism to the death of the hippie movement. Despite being set in the fictional town of Gordita Beach, “Inherent Vice” is suffused with the real-life social tensions of its mother state, who was moving away from peace and love and embracing a more politically conservative outlook. It’s telling that Doc agrees to make a deal with the Golden Fang, who, come to find out, is a front for lawyers and white-collar families. He knows he won’t be able to take them down, so the best he can hope for is a compromise. Like Daniel in “There Will Be Blood” and Freddie in “The Master,” Doc is eventually forced to reckon with his own cultural irrelevance.
But what about Shasta?
She was the reason Doc went on his Odyssean journey in the first place, and she lingers over the film like the perfume of a lost loved one. She may not be right for Doc, and a middle act scene suggests that their relationship is more than a bit unhealthy, but the detective can’t seem to move on. She’s the one that got away, the one who embodies the times in which he was most happy. Pynchon’s novel makes it clear that Shasta has no interest in rekindling things with Doc, and the final page sees him drive off into the night, alone. Anderson, a humanist filmmaker if ever there was one, decides to give his bohemian hero a break. In his version, Doc and Shasta drive off together, muttering about fate. It’s unclear whether they can work things out, or if Doc is headed for more heartbreak, but for a brief moment, the insanity of the outside world melts away, and a fog bank of bliss envelops them. For once, thinking will come later.
“Inherent Vice” is not for everybody, but those who choose to engage with it, who choose to peel back the layers of pot and nose-picking and paranoia will find a thoughtful meditation on change, both personal and cultural. That the film can be enjoyed as a stoner comedy, a social critique and a classic noir is a testament to its immaculate construction. It is among Anderson’s handful of masterpieces, the rare cult classic that deserves both the terms “cult” and the “classic.”
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is remarkably fluid, combining a wide range of moods and influences into a stylistically coherent whole. The script is packed with quotable lines and gags that reward repeat viewings. The time period is masterfully recreated, while the sprawling ensemble cast shines.
THE BAD – Despite being inherent to the noir style, the film’s dense plot and lengthy runtime may be off-putting to some.