With every new film, Paul Thomas Anderson tries to re-invent himself as a writer/director. Starting off his career with the crime drama Hard Eight (Sydney), then transitioning into a weird family drama with Boogie Nights. A few years later, he made an epic melodrama with Magnolia, while delivering a kooky romantic comedy with Punch-Drunk Love. Arguably, his masterpiece was released in 2007 with There Will Be Blood, while The Master almost feels like a loose thematic sequel. With his new film, Anderson dives into the absurd and drug induced with Inherent Vice.
Based on author Thomas Pynchon 2009 novel of the same name, Inherent Vice follows Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private investigator, who is caught in the middle of a drug-fueled investigation. He's a hippie that lives a loose lifestyle transitioning into 1970 southern California, where the police profile "long hairs" and there's a sharp difference between being hip and square. At first, Doc tries to solve the mystery of his missing on-again-off-again girlfriend, while he gets caught in a larger drug deal with an "ambiguously" Asian crime syndicate called the Golden Fang. The film presses on while Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen hassles Doc at every turn.
Inherent Vice is a patchwork of different film genres working together to make an audience dizzy and off-kilter. It goes from absurd comedy to film noir at a drop of a hat, while serving an audience with giggles and chuckles. The movie reflects the state of mind of its lead character Doc, who is always smoking weed or snorting illegal substances. It's just plain looney, as if Anderson is trying to make a live-action version of a Warner Bros. cartoon, so it's no coincidence that the main character is named Doc, as in "What's up Doc?" In fact, this is a big clue on how we should watch a strange movie like Inherent Vice. It's big and broad, while staying close that Paul Thomas Anderson sensibility fans and cinephiles will know and love.
In some ways, it's also Anderson exercising his best Robert Altman tendencies, which might be a direct comparison to the film The Long Goodbye. Of course, PTA has always had Altman as a big influence on his work, such as Magnolia (Short Cuts) and Punch-Drunk Love (Popeye). Inherent Vice is another extension of that Robert Altman influence.
It's almost reductive to say that Inherent Vice is Anderson's The Big Lebowski, but in many ways it is. The film's very loose plot should be ignored, as it only serves to put Phoenix's Doc in strange and absurd situations. One stand out involves Martin Short's Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd and quick (or long) drug bender that puts Short, as an comedic actor, in a different light. In fact, the film's supporting cast gives Doc a stranger way to bounce off of different personalities, from Jena Malone's big-toothed Hope Harlingen, Owen Wilson's "Jesus" figure and Hope's husband Coy Harlingen, and Michael K. Williams' paranoid Tariq Khalil. Almost every character in the movie serves Doc and his crazy adventures in LA's seedy underbelly.
Joaquin Phoenix holds the movie together as the stoner private eye. He's delightfully bewildered at every turn, while Phoenix and Wilson make a high time as hippies. While the film seems incoherent, Phoenix manages to give Doc a certain pathos and sympathy, as it seems that the P.I. is trying to be a good detective, but only manages to fall ass-backwards into more drugs and pizza. So much pizza! The performance is transformative, as Phoenix rises to the occasion as Doc.
While Joaquin Phoenix might lead the movie, the film's point-of-view and heart comes from the delightful Sortilège, played by singer/songwriter Joanna Newsome, who narrates the film. She kicks off the film and sets the stage for what's to come, while not servicing the plot or the ins-and-outs of the movie. It's another way that makes Inherent Vice feel like a movie with its influences on its sleeve. Newsome is a revelation as Sortilège, as it seems the film doesn't work without her. Although I enjoyed and fell in love with her performance, I couldn't help but feel that it was almost taken from a Terrence Malick movie, such as Badlands, as a bit a narration. It's almost as if Sortilège plays as Doc's subconscious or point-of-view... when he's sober.
While it took Anderson five years between Punch-Drunk Love to There Will Be Blood, and it took him another five years between that and The Master, Anderson produced Inherent Vice in only two years. While I'm more than happy to get a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie as quickly as possible, Inherent Vice seems like it should've taken more time to gestate. Although the film is broader than Anderson's last two films, it's still something that I don't think will play to the masses.
It's strange, hard to follow, and absurd. The movie is something closer to the abstract than something that is narratively tight and depending on what type of movie-goer you are, Inherent Vice might rub you the wrong way. That's not to say that I didn't like it, but it's certainly a bizarre trip through southern California during the 1970s. It's certainly not Anderson's best work, but it is his most ridiculous and ludicrous. Inherent Vice is certainly nuts-o, but it's a good time at the movies too!