Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film Inherent Vice is an adaptation from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel by the same name. It’s offers a psychedelic take on the classic detective tale that adds a variety of American subcultures and drugs to the mix. The result is a multi-layered, colorful, hilarious and slightly confusing Californian surf noir that is drenched in an almost hallucinogenic haze of smoke, hustlers and hippies.
When private eye and dope smoking hippie Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s (Joaquin Phoenix) ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, (Katherine Waterston) suddenly turns up out of nowhere with a tall tale about how her current billionaire boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and a plot by his wife and her boyfriend to kidnap that billionaire and have him thrown in a loony bin, it was safe to say stories such as these often lead to trouble. In helping Shasta look for Wolfmann, Doc becomes entangled in a number of other missing persons cases, murder plots, politics, prostitution, drug dealers, dentists and a mysterious group operating under ‘Golden Fang’. The further down the rabbit hole Doc goes, the more his intoxicated state becomes his own enemy as clues, coincidences and encounters mount up and create equal amounts of suspicion and confusion. Joining Doc is unhinged LAPD detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a tenor sax player working undercover (Owen Wilson) and various other additions from a Pychonian world of far out characters that only add to this kaleidoscopic yarn.
Inherent Vice is set in a dreamy 1970’s Los Angeles at a time where phrases such as ‘groovy’ and ‘love’ where still used and where hippies, surfers, dopers and rockers ruled only to be held back the paranoia in the air. This is Thomas Pynchon’s vision, which has been bought to life by Paul Thomas Anderson who is a master of his craft when it comes to multi stranded stories and interlinking characters. Only some of these stories disperse over time, some conclude and others collide adding a puzzling element to the already oddball tale. The films strength lies in its intricate details that you could get lost in the smoke filled scenes analysing for hours. Comparisons will be made with The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski but Inherent Vice is slightly more indirect and less coherent as when this complex mystery unfolds it does so to its own rhythm.
Impeccable casting is a real strength of the film particularly with Joaquin Phoenix, as Doc, who completely manages to embrace the hippie stereotype whilst drifting in and out of various states of consciousness and sometimes help and hinder his detecting abilities. Josh Brolin is also great as the self-described ‘renaissance cop’, Bigfoot. His character provides a lot of the comedy moments of the film including his slightly awkward frozen banana infatuation and his love hate relationship with Doc. With a powerful cast that also includes Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Benico Del Toro, there are so many characters in this film that are so well developed and performed but we just don’t get enough time with them.
Due to the farcical nature of the plot and the drug infused characters this is, at times, a very funny film. However, the humor also adds as a distraction especially through the subtle nuances of the characters in what is an already complex plot.
At times Inherent Vice can be a frustrating watch but Paul Thomas Anderson has a habit of bringing the best out in his actors and he hasn’t let us down with a superb cast especially Phoenix and Brolin with standout performances. These characters weave through this complex and often confusing psychedelic infused detective story beautifully. As the farcical plot thickens, twists and turns confusion mounts, concentration wanes and the film perhaps looses its way slightly. All no doubt intentional but it distracts from what should be a more memorable experience that has more than a hint of the Coen Brothers about it all. This is not Paul Thomas Anderson’s strongest installment but it is still an enjoyable and amusing trip that dances to the beat of its own drum under the influence of its own brand inherent vice.