It’s all been leading up to this. After revisiting his feature filmography up to this point, it is finally time to review Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film: Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name. Pynchon’s work has been considered unadaptable up to this point, as evidenced by the fact that no one has really tried in the last 50 years. But Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t just anyone. The filmmaker has embraced the challenge, describing his movie as a mixture of a classic noir, an Airplane!-style slapstick, and a Cheech and Chong-era stoner comedy. Does he hit that high? Or does Inherent Vice fall all over itself in a bad trip, man?
New Anderson regular Joaquin Phoenix centers the picture as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a stoned private investigator who somewhat blindly takes on a case for his former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Seems there is a plot to make her new boyfriend (Eric Roberts) disappear, and that particular rabbit hole leads Doc to Nazis, dopers, dentists, and drugs, all before he finds anything remotely resembling a satisfying conclusion.
Doc drifts from location to location, lead to lead, in a mostly coherent haze, and that’s also a pretty good way to describe the movie: mostly coherent. There is meandering certainly, often accompanied by the voiceover narration of Doc’s conscience/inner monologue, Sortilège (apparently an Anderson modification through which he can preserve much of Pynchon’s prose, played by musician Joanna Newsom), and that meandering can get a little distracting, but it never comes across as unintentional. Much as Doc is barely present in the present, so is the viewer, sometimes never even getting a full understanding of why certain events are occurring. Anderson knows what he’s doing.
Inherent Vice still works despite the constant drift. It is always nice to see Phoenix play a (relatively) normal guy; just look back twelve months to Spike Jonze’s Her for another great example. His more actor-y roles like Freddie Quell from The Master and Bruno Weiss in The Immigrant are great, but Phoenix also has the capacity to ground a picture with the true emotion he can present. He does just that in Her as Theodore Twombly, and, while Doc is a character here, he is a character with heart. The rest of the cast rises to a similar level, particularly Josh Brolin as aggressive “renaissance detective” Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a cop who regularly picks on hippie-dippie Doc. The rest of the cast get the short-shrift compared to these two (and Waterston), which is especially unfortunate because what we see of actors such as Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, and Hong Chau is really fun.
Most of the bit parts seem to exist to serve the humor of the film. Inherent Vice can’t really be called a “comedy,” though it’s probably as close as Anderson can get, never diving into darkness the way he does in Boogie Nights. The jokes are conversational, dropped in here by Benecio del Toro or there by Maya Rudolph, but they are always propped up by a strong reaction from Doc. Phoenix uses his face, which is so often twisted in tragic ways, to portray shock, exasperation, and confusion in increasingly entertaining moments.
Inherent Vice – like everything in Anderson’s oeuvre – is slow. It takes its time, but that results in more boredom than usual this time around. Still, regular Anderson collaborators work to pick up the slack. Robert Elswit’s camera exudes a haze of its own to combat Doc’s, while Jonny Greenwood’s score drifts and meanders along with the film. It all works together, even if individual pieces don’t feel right at the time.
In my review of The Master I expressed an interest in seeing Anderson move away from the portrait-of-a-tortured-man genre, and he has done just that. Inherent Vice is a conduit between his two forms – the giant ensemble piece (Magnolia) and the intimate character study (There Will Be Blood). It doesn’t hit the mark set by either of those films, but Anderson has fun making it either way. And that makes it a lot of fun to watch.