Synopsis: Inherent Vice, is the seventh feature from Paul Thomas Anderson and the first ever film adaption of a Thomas Pynchon novel. When private eye Doc Sportello’s ex-old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire land developer boyfriend whom she just happens to be in love with, and a plot by his wife and her boyfriend to kidnap that billionaire and throw him in a loony bin…well, easy for her to say.
Release Date: January 9, 2015 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Mystery
Although “Inherent Vice” is easily Thomas Pynchon’s most approachable novel it is by no means a pushover. Part psychedelic noir and part stoner comedy, “Inherent Vice”‘s entertainment value is as much a product of its characters as its characters are a product of it. What may at first glance seem like a very straightforward tale of corruption, backhanded dealings, and murder unfolds like a delightfully absurd acid trip, confusing and confounding the whole way through.
That’s all part of the magic of Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic adaptation of Pynchon’s novel. We meet our lead, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in the midst of a drug-addled haze, as his former love Shasta (Katherine Waterston) approaches him with a problem involving a rich landowner’s kidnapping and the seedy individuals he cavorts with.
At first, we don’t know what’s going on, but eventually, the hazy marijuana fog subsides (Or does it influence our perception?) and things start to become clear. For all intents and purposes, Shasta is our Femme Fatale and Sportello is our Raymond Chandler-esque P.I., only he can barely function without the assistance of recreational drugs.
To make things even more interesting, Inherent Vice throws in a number of subplots that fork off of the main plot but interconnect in ways that are never entirely clear. It’s an artistic choice – made by both author and writer/director – that will make Inherent Vice a challenge to digest, but that’s part of its charm. We, like Sportello, are never really supposed to have a strong grip on reality, lest we lose the frivolity of it all. Rather, it’s better simply to accept the ride, or maybe “trip” is a more appropriate description, for what it is and not try to overthink it.
If you focus enough on the story, though, it all comes together in a very interesting way. But even if you don’t get it all, Inherent Vice offers enough thought-provoking entertainment to sustain its 2-plus hour run time. There are lulls for sure, but the highs (no pun intended) far outweigh them. The real gem of the film is Phoenix’s performance as Sportello, the wistful P.I. whose ambivalence to the matter at hand makes for a complex read. You never really understand what the character’s motivations are, and that’s refreshing. Underneath all that, he’s such a goofy guy to watch on-screen, but you believe he’s capable of being ignorant one moment and prescient the next simply by virtue of his dope-infused aura.
Inherent Vice will not be for everyone as its dense narrative fits a very specific type of moviegoer, particularly those who enjoy offbeat cinema. The Big Lebowski this is not, and any who go in expecting such will likely come away disappointed. Sure, there are similar thematic elements, but the deliberate pacing of the film and its love of obfuscation will be a hard pill to swallow. You’re never quite sure where the film is going and if it has a true destination, but that always feels by design. Still, it’s worth mentioning that some will simply check out within the first 10 minutes, and they are not wrong in disliking the film’s approach.
Those who do kick back and accept the ride, while also keeping their mind engaged the whole way through, will find that Inherent Vice is smart carefully plotted noir, despite its characters being so dumb. It has charm and wit but never tries to be overly showy about it. The characters are vibrant and fit perfectly the time period and setting, and most of all they feel like uniquely crafted personalities that are exaggerated enough to be worth sticking with but grounded enough that the film doesn’t feel like a farce. Inherent Vice extends its brand of drug with a promise: if you ride the high you will not soon regret it.
Inherent Vice‘s biggest strength is its script, which was also written by P.T. Anderson. Filled with its own stoner noir lingo, the Inherent Vice script is exceedingly fun to unpack. Every conversation has its baseline beat, but there is so much subtext to decipher that the viewing experience becomes more demanding than one might first expect.
But even on its own, the Inherent Vice story is a great example of the type of no holds barred storytelling that noir does so well. It never presents easy answers or clean solutions, and you admire it more because of that. The film never takes an easy road but tries to be cinematically unique, thematically challenging, and conversationally complex. It’s high art masquerading as a stoner comedy.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the last few auteurs working today, and his talents are on full display in Inherent Vice. Here is a director who is confident in every stylistic choice, many of which buck the trends of conventional filmmaking. He lets the actors mumble through dialogue without a second guess, and never relies on overly explanatory bits to guide viewers through the film. From the music to the cinematography to the casting, every element of Inherent Vice feels carefully scrutinized by Anderson.
He trusts in his audience and they, in turn, should trust in him. Then again, this is without question Anderson’s most ambitious work, whose style lurks underneath the surface. It’s not as relentlessly comedic as Boogie Nights nor is it as sharp as There Will Be Blood. The film tries to honor the source material, which is all over the place at times, without feeling incoherent. Anderson knows when a little nudge in the right direction is necessary and when to simply let the scene be. It’s for that reason that his work on this film deserves the most praise.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Paul Thomas Anderson
- Screenwriter(s): Paul Thomas Anderson
- Cast: Joanna Newsom (Sortilege), Katherine Waterston (Shasta Fay Hepworth), Joaquin Phoenix (Larry “Doc” Sportello), Jordan Christian Hearn (Denis), Taylor Bonin (Ensenada Slim), Jeannie Berlin (Aunt Reet), Josh Brolin (Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen), Eric Roberts (Michael Z. Wolfmann), Maya Rudolph (Petunia Leeway), Benicio Del Toro (Sauncho Smilax, Esq)
- Editor(s): Leslie Jones
- Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
- Music Score: Jonny Greenwood
- Country Of Origin: USA