“It doesn’t make sense”, “It’s impossible to follow”, and “It’s overindulgent without a point” are the criticisms that have attached themselves to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice since its premiere at the New York Film Festival. It’s not entirely surprising, because after a career trajectory that had positioned him as one of the greatest American director, with many critics calling him an outright genius, Anderson has apparently decided to follow such capital-I “Important” movies as There Will Be Blood and The Master with what is essentially a stoner comedy.
This shouldn’t be a complete surprise, though. Inherent Vice might lack the intense masculinity of his previous two movies, but fans of the director shouldn’t forget how hilariously ridiculous those movies could get. After all, the final moments of There Will Be Blood, the infamous milkshake scene in particular, are as intimidating as they are over-the-top ridiculous. The same could be said about The Master, in which the late Philip Seymour Hoffman makes Joaquin Phoenix walk across a room ten times in a row in a scene that could very well function as an avant-garde piece of sketch comedy.
Anderson’s fascination for old bits of comedy is as old as his identity as a post-modern director. Truth be told, basically every director working today is a post-modernist, but Anderson’s reverence for certain filmmakers is palpable. When he first came into the scene, the naturalistic ensemble nature of Boogie Nights and Magnolia brought a lot of comparisons to Robert Altman, which is a great place to start when talking about Inherent Vice, which has universally been compared to Altman’s neo-noir classic The Long Goodbye.
A little bit about Inherent Vice’s plot: Based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Pynchon, our protagonist is private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who spends as much time trying to solve crimes as he does getting high which ever way he can. Our movie begins with his “ex old-lady” Shasta (Katherine Waterston) paying him an unexpected visit, and asking for his help as she describes the convoluted way in which her millionaire boyfriend Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) is about to be betrayed by his wife and her lover. Things only get more complicated from there, as Doc tries to make sense of an overtly complicated case while being almost too high to function.
Altman’s The Long Goodbye featured a hard-boiled detective straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel weirdly inhabiting a world full of hippies, Inherent Vice works almost as an opposite version of that movie. It fits with the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski as a deconstruction of the nonsensical nature of film noir plotting. Doc, however, is different to Lebowski’s “The Dude” in the fact that he is actually a professional detective. He wants to be part of the case, even if his slobbish nature renders him unable to keep up with the array of quirky characters at the center of this conspiracy.
Chief among these quirky characters is Lieutenant ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornson, played magnificently by Josh Brolin, a straight-arrow cop whose unhealthy relationship to Doc has him obsessed with following his every step waiting for the moment in which he can finally put his hands around this dirty hippie’s neck. Brolin’s performance, aided by a flawless deadpan delivery, is the stand-out in an all-star cast that includes Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, and Reese Witherspoon, all playing characters who do a lot of talking, and make very little sense.
So, yeah, its detractors are onto something when they say Inherent Vice is unnecessarily hard to follow. Formally speaking, the movie is designed to put us in Doc’s shoes. We’re experiencing every scene through a haze of smoke. The dialogue is stylized to a fault, it often goes in circles without a point, and all kinds of off and weird behavior becomes hilarious. There is no point in watching Inherent Vice while being high, the movie is already doing all that work for you.
They are also right when they say it’s an overindulgent movie. At two and half hours long, the movie is much longer than it has any right to be. Scenes stretch out, and thing just keep happening, with Anderson’s adaptation of Pynchon’s prose never showing any intension of building up any kind of tension, or resolving things in any sort of satisfying way.
Detractors might even by right that there is little point to the movie, but the way I see it, the point the movie is trying to make is that there is no point. This is an exercise in formality. This is the movie that results out of someone wanting to capture the effects of cannabis on film, and this facts extends all the way through the movie’s reason for existence. Is it a pointless adventure? Yes. Is there any bigger reason for it existing? Probably not. But then again, what is the reason people smoke pot? It’s about the experience.
Don’t let all this intellectual talk deceive you, though, Inherent Vice is first and foremost a ridiculous piece of comedy. I’m not going to lie, you might need to be in the movie’s wavelength to enjoy it. That doesn’t mean you have to be into drugs. As someone who does practically no drugs, I absolutely enjoyed it. It might not be ideal for you, but if it is, you will have a great time.
Grade: 9 out of 10.