Inherent Vice is the newest film of the eclectic Paul Thomas Anderson’s writer/director career. Based on the book bearing the same name (by Thomas Pynchon) the work straddles many genres: having a pastiche of detective, satirical, romantic, comedic and magical realism elements (in truth I wouldn’t know where to classify the film on Netflix).
In it Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role of Larry “Doc” Sportello, a drug-loving “hippie” personal investigator, who tries to get to the bottom of a number of mysteries in 1970 Los Angeles.
The average moviegoer will be thoroughly confused during their initial view of this film. The meandering plot (or anti-plot) doesn’t offer any tickling sensation of mystery nor does it offer a purpose or a desire to get behind; there’s only a colorful cast of personalities who at times make the film interesting.
The scenes frequently throw in new characters and are set apart much like vignettes; every scene could function as the opening or closing of the film without adding any more (or less) puzzling for the audience to do. By sifting through the many information-dumping scenes and adding a few connections of one’s own, there is a possibility that one can start to piece together the ‘plot’ into a fragile web of interconnecting story lines. Yet, there is little payoff in doing so.
Drug use is a major theme within the movie and, I sense, has fingerprints on the storytelling (if not more), especially its more fanciful elements. Not that I encourage it in any way, but I felt the audience might gain more appreciation or understanding of the work by being on the same ‘level’ as the characters and creators; but at the same time that’s an awfully flimsy ‘might.’
There are good performances all around. In fact Martin Short (as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd) and Josh Brolin (as Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen) have never looked better. Joaquin Phoenix isn’t snub-able either: his improvised comedy often functions as the audience’s only motivation to keep watching. It’s unfortunate the very talented and recognizable cast couldn’t have put their efforts to a work with wider appeal.
The Paul Thomas Anderson trademark extended shots and development of setting work somewhat to bring LA to life. There is a definite feel for the transition between the 1960s and the “Me Decade” of the 1970s; the dynamic of the aging hippie falling off the hard drugs for the old staples of booze and weed surfaces more than once. However, I can’t seem to find the actual pulse for the living and breathing entity of this time and place. Perhaps the elusive plot search underhandedly supersedes it, but there isn’t enough uniqueness to the chosen swathe of southern California (though the attempt to make distinctions is clear).
I appreciate the endeavors the film makes to force the blossoming of a distinct and funny work of art, but it fails in most ways. The moments of laughter come as often as necessary to make a decent two-minute trailer.
Long Stretches of Boring
Typical weaknesses of basing film on a book complicate the varied (but mostly lacking) success of Inherent Vice. Too many characters and too much story can’t fit onto the same screen in two and a half hours. The many characters have the cosmetics of roundness, but there is not enough time to show it beyond the proverbial dark matter of a greater story beneath. These factors inevitably made large stretches tedious to watch (especially in the middle).
The additional questions of “Why Doc?” and “Why now?” isn’t clear. There’s no transformation in the protagonist and neither is there any sense that he needs to change. Ultimately, we are shown the mere existence of Doc in slightly more dangerous and interesting circumstances than what he (probably) is used to.
Paul Thomas Anderson fans will probably find plenty of what they like in this movie; but it is by no means close to Magnolia or any of his better works. It simply leaves too much to interpretation and has too few stakes to engage even those of us with the widest lenses for story. There’s a lot more to say on this film, but like its plot, it’s too hard to explain and probably not worth it anyway.
Photos via: Warner Bros. Pictures