Mark Reviews Movies

Inherent Vice


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katerine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Benecio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael K. Williams, Hong Chau, 

MPAA Rating: R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence)

Running Time: 2:28

Release Date: 12/12/14 (limited); 1/9/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 8, 2015

Inherent Vice is a major stumble from a major filmmaker. It would tempting to call Paul Thomas Anderson's strangely off-putting and off-puttingly strange tale of drug-fueled detective shenanigans an act of unintentional folly, but too much of the folly here is clearly intentional for that to be case. It's a jumble of byzantine plotting and schizophrenic tone, which shifts from broad comedy to regret-filled misery on a whim. That, apparently, is the point. Get onboard, or spend two and a half hours wading in the rough seas of disinterest, watching as the movie's intentions get farther and farther away from us. It feels, though, as if the movie fails to inform us of not only the time of its departure but also the location of the dock from which it's departing.

This observation is not made lightly. In fact, it comes after the due or, perhaps, excessive diligence of three viewings (the first time to see it, the second in disbelief over the first, and the third because a respected colleague insisted that it was, indeed, the charm for him). Each one revealed little more about the plot or characters that could not be gleaned from the initial one.

As dense as the plot is, it is, in the end, perfunctory. As numerous as the characters in the movie are, they are, in the end, no more than agents of communicating the layers upon layers of exposition and story that are the focus of the movie. When a plot ultimately means so little in the big picture, it is more than disheartening to see so much time and so much talent spent on relating the intricacies therein—intricacies that come to a conclusion that is as hastily arrived at as it is meaningless to the protagonist.

The unlikely hero is Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private investigator with a penchant for smoking or taking all sorts narcotics and stimulants. One night in 1970, his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) unexpectedly arrives at his beachside apartment in Gordita Beach, California. She tells him a story about a real estate magnate, his wife, and the wife's boyfriend. The wife and her man-on-the-side want to get the husband institutionalized in a conspiracy to obtain his fortune, and they believe Shasta has the best chance to catch him at his weakest. Shasta disappears shortly after meeting with her ex.

Doc, whose nickname gives the characters plenty of chances to greet him like they're a certain cartoon rabbit, plays his role as any freelance detective in a mystery would—following leads and questioning people of interest before following more leads and questioning more people of interest. It's a cavalcade of oddities.

There's Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a gruff and violence-prone detective who moonlights as a struggling actor and has a subconscious habit of eating phallus-shaped food. There are Penny (Reese Witherspoon), a deputy district attorney who's dating Doc despite her disgust with his dirty-hippie feet, and Hope (Jena Malone), who tells a disgusting story of meeting her husband in a filthy bathroom.

The husband is the believed-dead Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player who is actually working undercover for the government to infiltrate counter-culture groups (If there's a deeper meaning here, it's how the Establishment ruins everything, man). The list goes on and on for a while to include neo-Nazis and federal agents, a prescription-snorting dentist (Martin Short) and a maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), and the proprietor (Hong Chau) of a brothel that's run like a buffet and an ethereal presence named Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who spouts astrological trivia while perhaps existing only as a figment of Doc's drug-addled mind.

No matter whom Doc meets, the result is always the same: lengthy conversations about secret organizations and schemes involving the mysterious "Golden Fang," which is a schooner, a crime syndicate, a mental health facility, a dentist union, and probably more. Anderson's screenplay (adapted from the novel by Thomas Pynchon) contains scenes featuring pages upon pages of dialogue between two characters, and his direction of these scenes consists of long one-takes and obligatory two-shot setups. The focus is undoubtedly what is being said, but if there is any rhythm to the words and phrasing, it is lost in performances that play the scenes as dutiful recitations from actors whose intonation at times suggests that they might fall asleep at any moment.

It would be unfair to say that Anderson, who has proven himself time and again to be an intelligent filmmaker, can't decide how to approach this material. It's almost as if he has made the conscious decision to be indecisive about it. Inherent Vice ends with a character literally seeing the light, and we're envious of his fortune.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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