LA Story: ‘Inherent Vice’ (Movie Review)

Inherent Vice:  4 ½ out of 5

Sortilege:  Doc may not be a “Do-Gooder” but he’s done good. Good luck,Doc.

Former flames, big time real estate moguls, something called the Golden Fang, and of course, lots of drugs; it looks like Doc might be getting in over his head.  Following There Will Be Blood and The Master it is nice to see writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson lighten up with Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s comedic detective novel of the same name, which places Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role of a private investigator looking into a missing person’s case.  While there certainly is a lot of plotting that develops, the film puts itself in the intriguing position of not really using that as a focus.  True to Anderson’s style, the film is much happier to explore the world and characters deposited into it, making for a bizarre, yet very entertaining feature.

At the center of the wild narrative and clouds of smoke in this 70s Los Angeles setting is Larry “Doc” Sportello, played exceptionally by Joaquin Phoenix.  While it is unfortunate that we will never get to see another great Phillip Seymour Hoffman performance in any future Paul Thomas Anderson films, Phoenix is back from The Master and clearly happy to step into the shoes of an entirely new character for him, which continues to highlight how skillful and actor like Phoenix really is.  As Doc, Phoenix has to play a character that is both aware and unaware of what is going on around him at the same time.  It is weird just writing a statement like that, but it ultimately seems like the best way to describe how Doc behaves in this film.

Of course, there are plenty of characters Doc encounters in this film and Inherent Vice has a tremendous ensemble cast, including new and familiar faces that are sure to provoke some sort of reaction.  The film features Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Jena Malone, Michael K. Williams, Maya Rudolph, and Katherine Waterson, an actress I was not too familiar with, who fits in very easily as this film’s take on the femme fatale.  Each of these actors bring something worthwhile to the film and many of them could easily have their own short films devoted to just them, within the world created in this film.

Standing high among these supporting performances is Josh Brolin as Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen.  A cop filled with contempt for the hippie crowd and his own desire to be something of a Hollywood player, Bigfoot is such a showy, but wildly entertaining role that Josh Brolin is able to truly make his own and basically walk away with any scene he is featured in.  If the film ever needs to remind the viewer that it is very funny, on top of all the weirdness and levels of drama that take place, Bigfoot’s presence is as good enough a reminder as any.

I could delve further into the narrative, especially given how interesting the antagonistic relationship between Doc and Bigfoot is, but again, that is beside the real point of this film.  Inherent Vice is sprawling in its quest exacerbate things for the audience, as far as keeping a traditional narrative in mind, but it is also the kind of film that can make the term “meandering” seem like a positive.  No doubt, if it was the desire of the filmmaker, this movie could easily be trimmed down and a few characters could be streamlined in an attempt to churn out a simple mystery with some quirky characters.  Instead, here is a two and a half hour movie that owes plenty to both the work of detective fiction novelist Raymond Chandler and the comedic team of Zucker, Abrams and Zucker, given the use of so much slapstick humor to undercut whatever sense of foreboding some may find in Doc’s journey.  Such a film does not necessarily mean it will be accessible to all, but I know I certainly had a great time watching the film, as well as thinking about it in the weeks since seeing it.

One can certainly look at this film and see a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson flavor.  Shot by his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit and featuring another score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, I never really feel I have to be convinced that a new PTA production will not be wonderful to look at and listen to at this point.  With that in mind, the way it all comes together, which includes the work to recall a certain time period from the perspective of a drugged out person like Doc, shows me that I am much happier admiring this groovy, oddball piece of work, rather than something stuffier and more traditional.  And it is not even as if Inherent Vice is approaching anything in any sort of revolutionary way, it just happens to be very comfortable in its presentation of a certain vibe, with a confounding mystery better observed than understood.

There are other great aspects to this film.  There are some terrific one-on-one scenes featured throughout.  A lot of great one-liners and little moments stand out easily.  Owen Wilson deserves plenty of credit for the amount of pathos he places in his role as a former surf rocker turned government snitch.  Another fairly new actress, Hong Chau, makes a terrific impression as the character Jade, who likes Doc enough to provide him with crucial info.  Japonica is a name I love hearing be said allowed every time in this film.  And the mild tension that occurs in this film is enough to keep the proceedings grounded enough in all the right ways.  Point being, I could go on and on about what I have to praise in Inherent Vice, much like how the film goes on and on into a direction that may seem too loose for some, but is perfectly in line for those that want to groove along with it.

Sortilege:  What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice?  Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.


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