Inherent Vice Review

Posted: January 12, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

tumblr_nhtjwiFhx61tmhoieo1_500Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most bold and uncompromising filmmakers of his generation, and for my money, he’s one of the best. Never allowing himself to fall into an easy groove, Anderson has continuously strived for unique and challenging material leading to his films all being different. In spite of this, the man has done a remarkable job of maintaining a consistently high quality over several projects. I’ve personally loved almost everything he’s made, but I also understand why he has his detractors. His movies, especially his recent outings, are defined by dark content, slower pace, unorthodox characters, general strangeness, and on the whole are not what most audiences would consider “fun”. His newest film, Inherent Vice, would seem to be another turning point for Anderson. The ensemble cast, 1970s setting, and the fast paced and comedic trailers would seem to indicate Anderson had lightened up and made something more fun and accessible, but this isn’t really the case. Inherent Vice may be the most overtly comic of Anderson’s filmography since Boogie Nights, this is still every bit as strange and confounding as The Master.

The film opens in Los Angeles, 1970, at the beach house of one Larry “Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). In addition to being a hippie and a user of psychedelic drugs, Doc is also a private eye. One evening, Doc is contacted by ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who is now in a relationship with millionaire land developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Shasta informs Doc of a plot from Mickey’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover to kidnap Mickey, throw him in an insane asylum, and collect his fortune. Drawn in for Shasta, Doc agrees to investigate, which soon sees him sucked into a world of deceit, plots, schemes, and trouble, along with a slew of strange people.

Though that plot description is accurate, it really doesn’t do justice to how complicated the central plot in. It doesn’t take long before the amount of names and secrets revealed begin to blur together and the goals of the film become lost. One can tell this is a deliberate decision too, as Anderson’s script (and I’m assuming Thomas Pynchon’s original novel) throws out a ton of very deliberate red herrings. This confusion is made even more palpable due to the fact that Anderson does not seem particularly interested in analyzing the details of the case, but more about following the experience Doc goes through. This tactic works, but it can also be pretty frustrating. Each individual scene is understandable and actually very entertaining in a vacuum, the bigger picture suffers as the overall goals become muddled. This is made even clearer by the film’s end where the film isn’t really sure where to stop and sort of rambles. There doesn’t seem to be a logical endpoint, which is admirable in that the film doesn’t conform to a standard structure, but there is a lack of finality to the story and I did find myself asking what the point was, in spite of enjoying the journey.

In addition to the story feeling a little aimless, so do the themes. One of the things I love most about Anderson’s films as how thematically stirring I find them to be, but that isn’t really the case with Inherent Vice. It’s not that the film is lacking thematic material, I just don’t find it terribly engaging or important. There is a lot of content regarding the “hippie” vs. “the man”, particularly how, despite what reputation would suggest, “the man” are just as dangerous and unproductive as the hippie, if not more so. Two of the characters that represent established order are detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) and Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short). The former is shown to be a selfish and violent man prone to outbursts and judgement, while the latter is a drug fueled sex freak with no ambitions beyond that. Doc, meanwhile, may be a hippie who indulges in prominent drug use, but he’s also the only character fueled by a genuine desire to help and does prove to do the right thing in the end. This also ties in to the films total of “inherent vice”, the base desires within people which compel them to act negatively, however the film also seems to argue this inherent vice can be overcome. It’s an interesting reading that I do value, but I don’t think it’s really enough to support the narrative, and the themes aren’t woven into the narrative fully. Of course, I’ve only had one viewing, and it is possible time will give me a greater appreciation for the intellectual subtext to the film, but as of now it hasn’t raised questions in me the same way There Will Be Blood or The Master did.

So far this probably reads like I hated the film, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth. While I do have serious problems with the narrative, I’d be lying if I said the film didn’t really entertain me. First and foremost, while Inherent Vice may not be the comedy it’s advertised to be, there are moments of hilarity throughout. Josh Brolin is particular is a laugh riot as the rigid and uber serious detective Big Foot, and he uses his imposing size, aggression, and delivery to great comedic effect. Brolin comes very close to stealing the film and is a major highlight. Joaquin Phoenix also finds comedic nuance in his character of Doc, with little things he does being quite funny. Phoenix builds Doc as a very complete character who is also very likable. There is a real physicality to the performance and Phoenix embodies it all quite well. Beyond Phoenix and Brolin, the movie is populated by a plethora of recognizable (or at least semi recognizable) actors like Reese Witherspoon, Benecio del Toro, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, and a ton of other lesser known actors. Each seems perfectly cast and bring a little something to the part. Additionally, up and comer Katherine Waterston is great as a naïve character who is almost a femme fatale but not quite, and she plays off a veteran like Phoenix quite well.

Anderson himself adds a lot to the movie as well. From a comedic standpoint, the man is able to create some very strong visual comedy, whether it be small details like signs or minor action in the background, to full on comedy set-pieces, he puts together some great stuff. Additionally, the movie looks great. Anderson is again shooting on real film and he and cinematographer Robert Elswit give the film a real sense of grain and dirt. This is carried over to the look of the characters as well, who quite often like dirty, with the appearance of grime, sweat, or smeared make-up. Despite this, the cinematography can also be quite beautiful at points with smoke, fog, and sunlight affecting the image in just the right ways. Anderson continuously captures great compositions and I’ve always loved the way he moves his camera. The costumes are also very period appropriate and despite the over the top nature of a lot of these styles, it still feels a restrained and appropriate choice. I also really liked the music here, both Johnny Greenwood’s trance like and hypnotic score, as well as the soundtrack. The typical choice here would be to fill the film with 70s rock and stoner music, but the songs are a lot more relaxed and folk based. I was particularly impressed by an inspired use of Neil Young during one of the film’s more tender scenes.

On the whole, I’m not quite sure what to make of Inherent Vice. I don’t find its thematic content particularly stirring and the narrative definitely has problems. That said, I was thoroughly entertained by damn near every scene and I continue to be enamoured with Anderson’s talents as a director. This is a very well shot film, with great music, full of colourful characters brought to life by top-notch actors, and on top of that the movie got some great laughs out of me. And yet, something still feels like its missing. Maybe I need more time to reflect on it, or perhaps the grand narratives of Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master had be wanting for something different? Or maybe this truly is one of Anderson’s lesser works? I’m not quite sure, and in truth this is a film I really want to revisit in time. As of now I’ll say this; Inherent Vice is not another masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson, but it is fun, and sometimes I like to have fun.


  1. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Dan. It’s wild and crazy, but I had such a ball with it. Even if, you know, it didn’t always work.

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