Critic Vafa Motamedi reviews Inherent Vice
From Cheech and Chong to Big Lebowski, stoner movies are nothing new. From a distance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, belongs in the same category. Yet while those other films merely show drug use as part of the narrative, the mere act of watching Inherent Vice is like taking part in it yourself. The film is less a stoner movie but more of a stoned movie.
The film’s plot concerns Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Doc’ Sportello, a weed smoking hippie and private eye living in Los Angeles in 1970. Doc’s ex-girlfriend comes to visit him and informs him that she is wrapped up in a scheme to get a rich land developer committed. When said land developer and Doc’s ex-girlfriend go missing, Doc starts an investigation to find out just what the hell is going on.
Any further discussion of the film’s plot would quickly turn convoluted, such is the bizarre labyrinthine nature of Doc’s investigation. Coincidences pile on coincidences, conspiracies exist within conspiracies and poor old Doc (and by extension the audience) stumbles from one inexplicable event to another in a desperate attempt to make sense of it all.
The film plays like a fever dream, small intentional continuity errors abound. Anderson has departed from the Kubrickian undertones of his previous two films and embraced a warmer and surreal style obviously returning to the work of his mentor Robert Altman and his PI masterpiece The Long Goodbye.
Much has been said about the films incomprehensibility (PTA himself dubbed it ‘Incoherent Vice’). The twists come thick and fast and it can be hard to digest them all at once. There are moments when even the dialogue is inaudible. As a result watching the film becomes a hazy experience, paranoia and confusion seeping out of every frame. This is a world where the hippie dream was dying, the Woodstock high morphing into the Manson family comedown. ‘The Man’ has won and not only do people no longer care but they’re no longer even aware that they’ve lost. The drugs are not a tool for transcendence anymore but a means of escaping the failure of the counterculture movement.
The idea that the film makes no sense (as has been touted) is ludicrous. With a little bit of thought afterwards, all the pieces that we are presented with slot into place quite neatly. If you try to wrestle the film as you are watching it, trying to stay one step ahead then it is quite natural that you would become quite confused. Yet if you let the film wash over you and absorb you into its strange hypnotising pulses then Inherent Vice becomes quite a vivid experience. The film takes its cue not only from the Pynchon novel but the works of Raymond Chandler where it wasn’t the answer to the mystery that was important but the journey you had getting there.
One of the film’s greatest achievements is its comprehensive representation of the time in which it is set. From the impeccable set design to the gloriously silly costumes, the film creates a vision of 1970 America that feels so utterly real. Seen through the eye of the stunning 35mm cinematography, the film is a visual feast, if nothing else.
Phoenix is on his A-game here and is proving himself to be one of the most engaging and transformative actors of his generation. Josh Brolin shows off his humorous side as Doc’s foil, the straight-laced proto-fascist police detective whose love/hate relationship with Doc provides the film with some of its best moments.
The film’s treatment of its female characters, from Doc’s ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) to Doc’s current one (Reese Witherspoon) is rather unfortunate, all mostly unengaging and two-dimensional and occasionally the film delves into leery gratuitousness (one scene with Waterson is particularly uncomfortable in this regard).
The film is overlong, running at a borderline exhausting 148 minutes. A short shaggy dog story is amusing. A long one quickly becomes irritating. PTA’s professed love of the source material (the screenplay is often less ‘adapted’ and more ripped straight from the book) has led to a reluctance at the editing stage to chop away the fat in order to create a more satisfying cinematic experience. As it is, the film feels less like a woozy odyssey and more a series of stops and starts.
All in all Inherent Vice is a compelling and fascinating film, a breath of fresh air within the rote structural expectations of modern Hollywood though frustratingly one that is only a few edits away from being a masterpiece.