Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Benecio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Hong Chau, Eric Roberts, Martin Short, Jenna Malone, Michael Kenneth Williams, Maya Rudolph
When it comes to the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master) I have tended to appreciate them without really enjoying them. In the case of his latest, Inherent Vice, I can confidently say that I enjoyed it without really understanding it.
Inherent Vice is an aggressively, unapologetically confusing mystery set in 1970 in the fictional California seaside town of Gordita Beach. Beach bum, stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is approached by a former girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), for help. She is currently having an affair with real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and Wolfmann’s wife and her lover have come to her offering money for her help in getting rid of him. Doc agrees to look into it only to find it is the beginning of a web that could include a missing musician, a maritime lawyer, a society of dentists, an Indo-Chinese heroin cartel and the deputy District Attorney. Or it could include none of those things. Or it could include some of those things but not others. With nothing quite as it seems it’s a bit hard to tell.
Where the Coen brothers’ cult favourite The Big Lebowski was once the sole example of ‘stoner noir,’ with the arrival of Inherent Vice we might just have a subgenre on our hands. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2007 novel, it feels like a comedic version of those great New Hollywood noirs like Chinatown and Night Moves, films which focussed on a detective well out of his depth. It is the first time a Pynchon novel has been adapted for the screen and director P. T. Anderson seems a good match for the author’s postmodernist material. Anderson has a preference for large, sprawling casts, and Inherent Vice includes great supporting roles and cameos for stars like Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, Benecio Del Toro and Maya Rudolph (who also happens to be Mrs. P. T. Anderson).
It falls to Doc to navigate this sea of subplots and side-characters. Sporting some monumental mutton-chops, Phoenix ensures Doc is much more than a stoner caricature. He captures Doc’s drug fuelled paranoia and skittishness without ever leading us to doubt his capability as an investigator. The yin to Doc’s yang is detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). A self-declared “Renaissance Cop,” Bigfoot is a hard-arsed, conservative detective by day and an aspiring actor by night. Just as Phoenix elevates Doc, Brolin’s scene stealing performance turns what could have simply been the straight-laced square to Doc’s hip PI into a character with a lot of depth and humour.
The costumes, for which designer Mark Bridges earned an Oscar nomination, are supremely effective in evoking a period and bringing to life this counter-cultural world of drug dealers, mediums, hippies, and spiritual coaches. Inherent Vice is simultaneously mellow and anxious, a bizarre tone that is assisted by the film’s narrator. What we initially believe to be a traditional omniscient narrator turns out to be Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), Doc’s ex-assistant, an otherwise peripheral character. While she narrates as though she is privy to Doc’s inner thoughts and feelings, her own interest in astrology and hippie personality infuse her storytelling.
Inherent Vice will undoubtedly take a second and maybe even a third viewing to comprehend the ins and outs of its narratives, but if you can embrace the confusion and go with the flow, it will only take one viewing to enjoy it.
Review by Duncan McLean
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