While no stranger to comedy, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson had yet to go full screwball as he does with Thomas Pynchon‘s Inherent Vice. I shouldn’t say “full” considering the laughs are desert dry and delivered with the utmost severity, but laugh-out-loud wouldn’t be an out of question turn of phrase to utilize if your sensibilities are keenly attuned to its acquired tone. Think Chinatown on acid with twists and turns and leads run hot that ultimately point nowhere; the end arriving with a few periphery issues resolved and a thought about whether Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) should have ever got off his couch in the first place. Something is happening around Gordito Beach but I can’t say anyone would care to uncover the conspiracy if not for Doc’s ex Shasta (Katherine Waterston) requesting a favor.
Then again, it doesn’t take long for us to wonder how much of what we see is actually outside of Doc’s marijuana-addled mind. Did Shasta come over with such sorrow he had never seen on her face before? Did he perhaps read her name as missing in the paper alongside real estate magnate Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and hallucinate her explaining the ins and outs of what was going on with Aryan Brotherhood, Black Panthers, Communists, FBI Agents, and sex workers all intertwined? It doesn’t really matter either way since the ambiguity enhances much of the humor like with Lt. Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) calling Doc the second after something happens to say, “I heard said thing just happened”. Paranoia is strong and the events that transpire do so in a hyper reality to prove such.
It should have been a simple conversation with new, sorta girlfriend Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) to see if she could dig anything up on a supposed conspiracy to fleece Wolfmann of his riches, but there’s two-and-a-half hours to fill so you know this pulpy noir has to divert left and right until the plot itself becomes a MacGuffin to ensure we watch Doc stumble to the doorsteps of Pynchon’s eccentric menagerie. His initial lead turns up dead, he’s framed as suspect number one, law enforcement grills him for answers he doesn’t possess, and a saxophone player named Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) shows up everywhere Doc goes as though they’re tripping together on the bathroom floor of a seedy brothel downtown. I half expected one ofBurroughs‘ Mugwumps to walk across the screen in the background.
One angle leads to another and soon Doc is unearthing secrets I’ll admit to needing a few extra minutes to figure out what they had to do with anything happening previously. Inherent Vice is literally a string of random events connected by a handful of characters that puts the pedal to the floor and won’t let go so we in turn can never wake up. We go somewhere to see Coy and there’s cunilinguist expert Jade (Hong Chau) asking for a ride home. We go somewhere else to unmask the Asian mob behind a drug smuggling operation only to discover a depraved dentist (a restrained yet still off-the-wall Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S.) and a runaway (Sasha Pieterse‘s Japonica) from a previous case. At a certain point you become as disoriented as Doc himself.
And therein lies the problem. No matter how much fun Anderson is having and allowing us to partake alongside him, I couldn’t help but start to drift about 90-minutes in. Everyone became an obvious pawn to some bigger picture I began to realize would never get solved and I began to stop caring. It’s somewhat of a sobering notion to become cognizant I’ve invested so much in this case and yet not one answer got me any closer to closure. I’m not saying I felt tricked, I just wish it would have set itself up as a clear-cut farce earlier so I didn’t get my hopes up. Because at the end of the day the reasons for Wolfmann’s disappearance are pretty boring and the idea of a vertically integrated drug cartel the same. The intrigue comes from Doc’s filter.
Add in a narrator whose very name describes her duality as possible real person and probable spiritual manifestation of Doc’s deductive reasoning (Joanna Newsom‘s Sortilège) and you wonder if the theater was pumped full of the same PCP lacing Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine) joint. Nothing can be trusted when coincidence is king and the joke paramount above plot progression. The straight-faced delivery of lines becomes the reason for watching an otherwise innocuous conversation because simply facilitating exposition is too bland a maneuver. It’s fun and Phoenix’s performance makes it more so, but the film is too long to sustain itself. Replacing one insane situation with another isn’t the same as resolving a piece of a puzzle to move towards the next. These characters are jumping from piece to piece because no two are ever joined.
Don’t get me wrong: that’s a relevant choice to make. There’s enough to appreciate in the characters proving more and more interesting with each new introduction that the plot can dissolve into the background as a roadmap rather than story. The things that occur are strange enough to be embellished interpretations of an impaired mind and real enough to be happening exactly as depicted—the appeal is in never knowing which is which. Inherent Vice is an R-rated ride recalling the fever dreams of Beat Generation noir for anyone willing to embark. It must surely only get better with subsequent viewings as the density of its microcosmic scope is alleviated by an ever-loosening mindset on behalf of the viewer. Go in freely and bask in its bizarre nature because the rest is boldly rendered secondary.
Rating: R | Runtime: 148 minutes | Release Date: December 12th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer(s): Paul Thomas Anderson / Thomas Pynchon (novel)