Inherent Vice is based on the Thomas Pynchon novel (I have not read) and is a detective tale with twists and turns to spare. Doc Sportello is a “hippie” PI living on the beach in LA when an ex-flame, Shasta, drops in and asks Doc to look into her lover, Wolfmann, and his wife who is trying to steal all of his money with her man on the side by putting Wolfmann into an insane asylum. I know that is a very confusing sentence, but that is kind of the point of this story as well. Yeah, you can keep pace with many of the in’s and out’s of the story, but solving the case before Doc does isn’t really the point of the story. It is fun to try to do so, and I’m pretty sure it all makes sense in the end, but giving yourself over to Doc’s journey and the drug fueled haze it will put you in ensures you enjoy this film as much as possible.
Filmmaking wise, the film is as superb as we have come to expect from Paul Thomas Anderson. He and his team have crafted a beautiful film that is equal parts tense and hilarious. There is so much subtle humor layered throughout the film, I’m sure I missed plenty of jokes and bits hiding in the background based on the couple that I actually spotted. The world Pynchon created seems to be a vibrant and interesting place and Anderson never misses a moment to showcase that. All that said, and this isn’t really a criticism, the film feels the least Andersony of any of his films. His first four films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) all feel distinctly made by the same director with that carrying over into a different style he found in There Will Be Blood and The Master. Inherent Vice feels shaggier and less precise than any of his other films, with good reason as nothing in Doc’s life is precise, but while it certainly falls in line look-wise with Anderson’s last two works, it’s style and world make Inherent Vice feel like his most unique film on almost every level. It probably feels very Pynchon for those that have read his works, and while I am by no means knocking the film for this, I was surprised how different Inherent Vice felt compared to the rest of his filmography, all while fitting right in all the same.
I was really impressed by the comic timing/editing of the film that makes you laugh continuously with simple cuts all while ramping up tension when needed by not letting you go. The shot of the film involves a simple set up where the camera never moves, but the tension Anderson is able to build up by not letting us leave the moment rivals the processing scene in The Master where Phoenix wasn’t able to blink. You’ll know it when you see it, but look for the naked person.
The cast is also fantastic from top to bottom here, but some manage to stand out from the pack. Joaquin Phoenix notches up another fantastic leading man performance that is completely different from anything else he has done. His face, well it is just amazing. Phoenix’s reactions to the endless parade of characters he interacts with, and Doc meets quite a few weird ones along the way, are just priceless and I can’t wait to go back and catch every little nuance there is sitting in this performance. Katherine Waterston is mesmerizing and alluring, you can’t look away from her, she comes out of nowhere and will haunt your dreams like she does Doc’s. Waterston is so good I can’t believe she isn’t a star yet. Josh Brolin also delivers his best performance to date as the deranged and hilarious Bigfoot Bjornsen. The character feels like Josh Brolin’s talents refined to perfection. It’s an incredible performance that lets Brolin show off everything he is capable as an actor and with the part playing up to all of his strengths.
Many other great actors pop in and out, like Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Michael Kenneth Williams, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, and are all great, but of the smaller bit players Owen Wilson, Hong Chau and Benicio Del Toro get to shine brightest. Wilson’s laid back demeanor plays wonderfully as he keeps popping back up throughout as someone too spoilery to get into. Chau is hilarious and assertive as a lady seemingly on the inside of everything. While Del Toro just slays in the two scenes he gets in the film. Joanna Newsom is also otherworldly, appropriately, as she slides in and out of our heads as the film’s narrator. Martin Short is also fantastic in a blazing five minutes of screen time as a powerful dentist. Yes, a dentist.
If my rambling has been a confusing, but enjoyable read, then Inherent Vice is probably the right kind of film for you. I won’t really be able to properly rank this in Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography till I see it again, but it is great as you would hope from the man. It’s also one of the best films of the year. If you are up for the trip, don’t you dare miss it.