Inherent Vice June 4, 2015
Forget about the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. Forget about what you thought you knew about the neo-noired tinges of the modernized private eye genre and relax. Turn your brain off. Let your senses free. Let your open-mindedness prosper like that of a hyper-liberal hippie. Because Inherent Vice, this year’s love letter to films like The Long Goodbye and Harper, doesn’t want you to keep up with its story. It doesn’t want you to consult a plot summary page to clarify its many, many, plot points. It wants you to watch the characters converse as though you were watching an unusually intense game of ping pong, the dialogue flipping back and forth with implacable concentration. It wants you to be as in a blur as its main character, perpetually stoned detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), to be entranced by things that one wouldn’t normally notice when not under the influence.
Inherent Vice feels a part of a completely different generation, so successfully mirroring the pulsating life of a particularly eccentric Robert Altman ensemble comedy that it can hardly be compared to its peers. I find it difficult to remember a recent critical darling (a project from a living legend, that is) that wasn’t self-serious. That wasn’t afraid to be nearly three hours long, to take risk after risk after risk.
Inherent Vice could be called a mess. But I don’t think it is one: a mess would be distinctly unable to settle down and actually mean something, and this film, for all its labyrinthine digressions, feels like something. An experience, maybe. Its ability to transport us into another time, another place, another mentality, is seductive and cheeky.
Inherent Vice opens in 1970, and the central Doc is being visited by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who's in desperate need of help. She believes that her new beau, billionaire Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is being targeted in a kidnapping scheme orchestrated by his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover. They plan to nab him, throw him in an insane asylum, and take his money, she says. Before she can so much as expand on her story, she departs the scene. This doesn't stop Doc from being intrigued, though, and such leads him to a plethora of shady characters and confrontation.
After Doc’s initial meeting with Shasta, the film plummets into such vast unintelligibility that further explanation would confuse me just as much as it would you. But story needn't matter in Inherent Vice. It is about mood, texture, and enigma. Like The Big Sleep, you're mesmerized by its glowing dialogue, its ability to maintain a certain sort of invincible mystification.
An unexpected curveball is also thrown courtesy of the humor; Anderson, writing and directing, raises seamless wit from the ashes of trippy conversational interludes. The narration, provided by acclaimed musician Joanna Newsom, is so smugly chipper that her being chosen for the voiceover job works well in the context of the film’s balls-out, far out, attitude.
But even for its being so extravagantly funky, Inherent Vice never loses its bulldozing hypnotization. For a movie that feels more at home telling its story under a thick cloud of fresh Mary Jane, the film's irresistible, just like how Taco Bell sounds like a five-course meal at midnight to a flibbertigibbet pothead. I was unendingly entranced. Amongst the baffling storyline lie a number of scenes that run coherently. And the characters who populate them, no matter how big or small the role, are so well-drawn that they feel definite inside this haze maze.
Phoenix gives a trippy comedic performance as Doc, tearing off the remnants of previous roles in favor of accidental quirk. Waterston is appealing, fearless even, as Shasta; Hong Chau, as call-girl Jade, is scene-stealing as a chipmunk voiced ho who doesn’t look the part but enlivens it. Also stopping by with wonderful performances are a testosterone-pumped Josh Brolin, a nervous Owen Wilson, a shady Benicio Del Toro, and a too-calm-for-her-situation Jena Malone. Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and Maya Rudolph make all too brief appearances as Doc conglomerates — but the size of a role hardly matters here. Anderson’s writing is so instinctually eruditic that even a bit part rings with three-dimension.
With its ‘70s-authentic, sweaty camerawork, Inherent Vice really does feel like a peer to ‘73’s The Long Goodbye. But enough comparison. Despite its obvious adoration for the modernized tactics of the neo-noir, the film is a work of filmmaking originality that, once again, provides argument for why Paul Thomas Anderson is such a bulletproof director. Even his most outré works contain some sort of interest, some sort of memorability. A