Ah, Paul Thomas Anderson. First he takes part in a heated Oscar race, ultimately losing to the Coens and No Country for Old Men. Then he made the absolutely brilliant The Master, which got pretty much entirely shut out of the Oscar race.
And now we have Inherent Vice, another film with tremendous critical acclaim and very few Oscar nods to show for it. But of course a Paul Thomas Anderson film with such an amazing cast would be worth seeing anyway. And while I personally feel that the movie is a touch overrated and not nearly as good as some of Anderson’s other works, it’s still a very good picture.
We set our stage in 1970, somewhere in the Los Angeles area. Our protagonist for today is Larry “Doc” Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix. He appears to be a gynecologist by trade, though his office is mostly a front for his private investigator business. Also, it’s a great place to get high on laughing gas.
Anyway, Doc gets a late-night visit from an ex-girlfriend (Shasta, played by Katherine Watson), who’s also our femme fatale for the movie. She’s currently seeing an eccentric real-estate mogul (Mickey Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts) who appears to have fallen in with a gang of biker skinheads. While that is going on, Wolfmann’s wife (Sloane Wolfmann, played by Serena Scott Thomas) and her boyfriend want Shasta’s help to take Wolfmann out of the picture so the three of them can split the inheritance. Shasta smells trouble, so she discreetly goes to see Doc. A short time later, Shasta and Wolfmann have both gone missing.
Confused yet? By the time the movie’s through, you probably will be. Before very long, this whole case spirals out of control, encompassing various gangs, drug smuggling rings, government espionage, white collar corruption, shady corporations, the list goes on and on. Seriously, if the main character has to sit down and draw a diagram to figure out how the different characters and plotlines affect each other, what chance does the audience have?
Moreover, this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Say what you will about the guy, but he’s not exactly known for making films that are briskly paced. This is a two-and-a-half-hour movie that feels like it could be three hours long. On the other hand, this deliberate pacing serves to help juggle all the various plotlines. The film isn’t afraid to take its time and very closely examine each new revelation, carefully spelling out what it means for the greater investigation, which helps the audience feel like we’re keeping a good enough grasp on what’s going on.
It also helps that we have such an amazing cast to get us through this. Even the minor roles are played by heavy hitters like Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts, Michael K. Williams, Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone, and Martin Short. And those are the relatively minor parts — the more prominent players include Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, and Owen Wilson. This may be Joaquin Phoenix’s show, and he carries it brilliantly, but there are so many amazing performances to keep the proceedings enjoyable, even as the pacing lags and the plot gets convoluted.
What’s more, Anderson continues to show phenomenal skill with editing and camerawork, positioning and maintaining his shots in just such a way that it enhances the actors’ performances and makes them look even more brilliant. In particular, Waterston gets a monologue at the start of the third act that’s presented entirely in one take, which only makes her performance all the more dazzling. And not just because she’s entirely naked at the time.
Every single actor is perfectly cast, though that doesn’t mean every character is a hit. By far the greatest weak point in the cast is Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), who tends to drift in and out of the movie without any development, point, reason, or purpose, aside from being the narrator. Sweet soul of LaFontaine, is she our narrator. I don’t think the film went five minutes without Sortilege providing some kind of flowery voice-over to talk about Doc’s state of mind or whatever else she thinks we need to know in the moment. Don’t get me wrong, the prose is very beautiful in a poetic sort of way, but this is exactly the sort of thing that should have been dropped in the process of adaptation. In fact, the narration and the lengthy, convoluted plot are both so much better-suited for a written medium that the film practically lets us know right up front how much better the book is.
Then again, the narration falls perfectly in line with the stereotypical hard-boiled noir detective story, and that’s exactly what this is. Even if the film isn’t nearly as thematically deep or intellectual as some of Anderson’s other works, it never tries to be. It was only ever supposed to be an old-fashioned 1970 noir suspense thriller, and it works perfectly fine by those standards.
Of course, that’s not to say the film is completely void of artistic merit. After all, our lead character is a hippie and a stoner (if you’ll pardon the redundancy) living in 1970. Thus the film lends itself to a very colorful presentation, with themes of class warfare and anti-authoritarianism sewn into the narrative. What’s more, the character’s drug use adds a distinct flavor to the paranoia typically seen in most noir protagonists, and his counter-culture lifestyle adds a neat layer to the trope of the detective that nobody else likes or trusts. It’s a lot more thin than anything you’ll find in There Will Be Blood, The Master, or even Boogie Nights, but it’s still something, and it’s still enough to lend the film some degree of novelty.
That’s really what it comes down to with Inherent Vice. This shouldn’t be considered a mind-blowing work of cinematic art, it was never going to be an instant classic, and positioning it as an Oscar contender was a mistake. This film is nothing more or less than a cracking pulp fiction retro noir detective yarn, and it works perfectly fine on those grounds. Indeed, given the strength of the cast and direction, this is easily the best noir film I’ve seen since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang at least.
It’s absolutely a film worth seeing, but maybe not until a second run or DVD release. There’s nothing in here that wouldn’t be just as effective on a smaller screen, and there are too many other awards favorites in theaters right now that are begging to be seen. And anyway, I’m sure you’ll be thankful for the option to rewind back to previous events in the movie, as well as the option to fast forward through the slower moments.