“Inherent Vice”—based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon—is Paul Thomas Anderson’s wild, psychedelic take on the Film noir; think, “The Big Sleep” crossed with “The Big Lebowski.” The movie can be a lot of fun to watch but I also felt emotionally distant from the proceedings. During one scene the Private Investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) visits his acquaintance from the police department, Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornson (a fantastic Josh Brolin) to give him an update on a missing person. Before Sportello can share his juicy bit of information Bjornson bluntly asks, “remind me again why I give a shit?” This is kind of the way I felt while watching “Inherent Vice.” I was never bored but every so often I asked that very question in my head. Unfortunately the movie never provides a good enough answer. Again, this isn’t to say “Inherent Vice” is a total loss—far from it-- but by the end I didn’t care very deeply about the outcome of the story or what happened to the characters.
The action takes place in Los Angeles during 1970; Anderson creates an atmosphere ripe with paranoia and pessimism. Changes in the landscape are coming; old neighborhoods are being bulldozed to make room for new housing developments. With The Manson Family murders fresh on everyone’s mind there’s a visible fear of the counter culture movement. At the same time though, the straight edged government types do their fair share of illegal activities. Overall, neither side can really be trusted. The picture is riddled with humor that directly addresses this feeling of paranoia. For example, Sportello and a few other people are pulled over by the cops because three or more people together are now considered a “cult.” It’s been a while since Anderson has made a movie this funny. His last two efforts “There will Be Blood” and “The Master,”--while impressive in some respects-- felt rigid and oppressive. With “Inherent Vice” he achieves a loose and silly vibe, similar to the one in his sophomore feature “Boogie Nights.”
Because of the film’s scatterbrained, confusing nature it’s somewhat difficult to give a proper plot synopsis. Even if you watch the trailer multiple times you’ll still only get a vague sense of what’s going on. So I’ll do the best I can without boring you; an ex flame Shasta Fay Hepworth, (Katherine Waterston) comes to Sportello with a problem. Her new boyfriend Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real-estate tycoon has gone missing. Sportello takes the job and of course things get more complex. Before long he’s investigating the disappearances of two more people, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) and Hepworth herself and comes into contact with a mysterious ship called the Golden Fang. Along the way he runs into more past love interests, old acquaintances and has encounters with biker gangs, the police and the FBI. Sigh.
Sporting a ratty green jacket, wild and tangled hair and a pair of glorious muttonchops, Sportello’s counter-culture Phillip Marlowe is a welcomed addition to the Film noir cannon. He’s definitely not the smartest—he runs his P.I. business out of a doctor’s office-- and with his frequent drug use you sometimes wonder where he gets the motivation to keep pursuing this complex case. At the same time his naïve, almost childlike personality feels refreshing. He’s not cynical or jaded like most P.I.’s; the weight of the world hasn’t brought him down. Essentially Sportello is a doofus who’s trying to do something important—or at least what he thinks is important—and do it the best way he can. Once in a while we see him scribble a few notes on a note pad or look over a list of suspects on a white board, in an attempt to keep track of his work. He even combs his hair when he goes to meet people in more formal settings. Phoenix is able to find a good balance between excessive and sincere. Sportello may act stupid and crazy but he never becomes a total caricature. Also believe it or not, he’s the only character that can be trusted from start to finish. Everyone else, even the tightly wound, hippy-hating Bjornson has some kind of hidden agenda. In a turbulent Los Angeles the most consistent and trustworthy person is a drugged out idiot. Talk about trippy.
And yet, as entertaining as “Inherent Vice” can be I still found myself oddly detached from it. The movie is convoluted and it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on but that’s not my issue with it. In general, Film noirs—even the classic ones— usually contain convoluted plots but by the end everything adds up in a satisfying manner. Before writing this review I had the opportunity to watch the movie again and while I understood the story better I can’t say I cared about it all that much or the characters on a deep level. I didn’t care if Coy Harlingen was found and reunited with his wife and kid. I didn’t care about Sportello’s relationship with Hepworth or his relationship with Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), a Deputy D.A., and I didn’t even care whether Sportello solved the case or not.
For all of the stuff that happens in the movie, the central “case” itself—as well as the various mysteries its made up of—feels kind of slight and insignificant. In fact, the movie really doesn’t need to be as complex as it is. Certain side plots and characters could have been cut entirely. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, loose ends may be tied up but you’re unsure of why those loose ends are significant in the first place. Unfortunately, the individual parts of “Inherent Vice” don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying hole. Furthermore, with the exception of Bjornson, the supporting characters remain relatively one-dimensional. They simply get lost in the clutter of the narrative.
I don’t want to disregard “Inherent Vice” completely. Perhaps I’ll watch it again, in a couple months or even a year and my problems with it won’t be as pronounced. All in all, I think I liked Anderson’s movie on a surface level. I enjoyed watching Phoenix’s dazed, Private Eye stumble and bumble around. I enjoyed the 70’s aesthetic; David Crank’s production design and the groovy soundtrack--made up of original compositions by Jonny Greenwood and existing songs. But I still can’t deny the emotional distance I felt while watching, which made it difficult for me to engage with the picture on a deeper level.