During the psychedelic 60s and 70s Larry “Doc” Sportello is surprised by his former girlfriend and her plot for her billionaire boyfriend, his wife, and her boyfriend. A plan for kidnapping gets shaken up by the oddball characters entangled in this groovy kidnapping romp based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon.
User Reviews: ‘Straightforward’ is not a word I will use in this review to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film Inherent Vice. Lying somewhere at the crossroads between a ’70s neo-noir film and an absurdist stoner comedy, this neon-tinged detective story is two-and-a-half hours of increasingly absurd psychedelic mayhem. It’s dense, confusing, chaotic, and absolutely riveting in its amorphous plotting and paranoid atmosphere.
Musician Joanna Newsom plays Sortilège, the film’s narrator and our guide through the hazy story of hippie-turned-private-detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). The story starts off simply enough, with Doc hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to locate her missing lover, but it all quickly spirals out of control into nearly a dozen different sub-plots featuring neo-Nazis, real estate, dentistry and everything in between.
As the first filmmaker to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel to the screen, there was a great deal of pressure on Paul Thomas Anderson to successfully translate the source novel’s complex prose into a relatively understandable film. Pynchon’s work is known for featuring dozens upon dozens of characters involved in a variety of loosely connected plot lines, which makes it nearly impossible to faithfully adapt his novels. Of course, anyone who has seen Anderson’s epic ensemble drama Magnolia can confirm that the director is more than capable of seamlessly interweaving countless characters and story lines, and in the case of Inherent Vice Anderson truly does an astounding job of packing so much dense material into a feature-length film. Although the plot is hardly comprehensible upon the first viewing, a second or third viewing reveals that, while intensely complex, the story is entirely coherent thanks to Anderson’s clever, brilliantly- crafted script.
That comparison to Magnolia may be misleading, however, as Inherent Vice occupies a unique place in Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography. While Anderson has dabbled in comedy in the past, most notably with his dark rom-com Punch-Drunk Love, his humor has always been a cover for the far more deeply rooted melancholy that permeates all his films. While Inherent Vice’s humor does take a backseat to the film’s central mystery, it’s nonetheless far brasher than that of any other PTA film. Anderson himself compared the film’s comic timing to that of ’80s screwball comedies Airplane! and The Naked Gun, a comparison that is uncharacteristic of his typical style to say the least. While it’s surely more a neo-noir than a comedy, the film has more than enough laugh-out-loud moments to make it PTA’s funniest movie to date, as well as a unique next step in his evolution as a director.
While Anderson’s script does deserve its fair share of credit for the film’s absurd humor, what really makes Inherent Vice so funny is the acting, especially that of Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin. Phoenix’s portrayal of our perpetually stoned protagonist Doc is universally spot-on; with a wonderfully out-of-it expression frozen on his face, Doc stumbles through the movie dazed and confused in a marijuana-induced haze. The smallest details, such as Doc aggressively slapping himself in the face mid-conversation to focus, are what make his performance so consistently enjoyable. Brolin, meanwhile, steals the show as hippie-hating cop Christian "Bigfoot" Björnsen, who both antagonizes and collaborates with Doc to unravel the film’s tangled web of mysteries. Bigfooot’s many idiosyncrasies, including the inadvertently suggestive way he eats frozen bananas and his not-quite-mastery of Japanese, make him by far one of the funniest and most colorful characters of the film, and Josh Brolin plays him with just the right mix of hotheadedness and cluelessness.
Despite Inherent Vice’s one-of-a-kind style and atmosphere, it’s still ultimately not going to work for a whole lot of people. It’s virtually impossible to follow the plot the first time around, and its many subplots and manic storytelling style will surely frustrate and alienate many viewers. For those that can tolerate its eccentricities however, it’s a rambling drug-fueled odyssey worth taking and, while it may not be his best work, yet another impressive showcase of Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible talent and versatility as a filmmaker.