Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
Private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Phoenix) gets a surprise visit from his ex girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) asking him to investigate an apparent plot to kidnap her current married lover Michael Z Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). When both Shasta and Wolfmann disappear Doc is forced to investigate increasingly deeper into the surreal and psychedelic drug fuelled community of 1970 Los Angeles with an angry LA cop (Brolin) constantly on his back.
Good old Paul Thomas Anderson has never been afraid to make films that could be described as a little ‘unconventional’, not to mention very long in running time and certainly in my view he often struggles to end them. Well, this has not mattered so much in many of his previous films as they have contained within that said unconventional narrative very interesting characters, themes and ideas, as well as some superb performances. Unfortunately with Inherent Vice PTA has perhaps taken that too far with a film that has not only been made with a lack of discipline from the auteur himself, but it also has an intentionally confusing plot and very little to make up for that in a film that is often a real effort to watch and provides minimal reward.
Anderson’s attention to detail is unquestionable and one of the strengths of Inherent Vice is the work that has gone into capturing the essence of the time period it is set in. This is a film that makes clear of the specific time it is in, it is not just generic 70s but makes clear it is 1970 and the drug fuelled and political paranoia of the time. Visually the film does intentionally feel rough around the edges and Robert Elswit’s suitably hazy cinematography captures perfectly the heat, sweat and sleaze of the time. Likewise Mark Bridges definitely deserves his Oscar nomination for his costume design and regular PTA composer Jonny Greenwood’s score fits in perfectly along with the late 1960s songs that constantly pop up.
The performances too are on the whole excellent. Joaquin Phoenix (sporting an outrageous set of mutton chops along with very dirty feet and hair) is excellent as the slightly zoned out Doc and certainly adds depth to a character that is not really given any by the material. Likewise, as the permanently intense LAPD detective and Doc’s nemesis that constantly refers to him affectionately as “hippy scum” Josh Brolin is on excellent form. Likewise, the plethora of familiar names give suitably screwball performances that suit the often slightly strange and drugged up characters, even though Joanna Newsom’s voiceover, though sometimes necessary is often quite annoying.
However, as good from an aesthetic and technical point of view Inherent Vice may be, as a complete film it is often laborious, uninvolving and infuriating. There is just not enough here to justify the intentionally bewildering plot, and though there are some very well put together individual scenes (both dramatic and comedic), on the whole the film just lacks any rigid discipline (whether this is the fault of PTA or the novel I do not know – but I suspect it is elements of both) to work either as hilarious farce or compelling drama. Films can of course be both, but Inherent Vice is way too meandering or vacuous to be either. Anderson has been quoted as saying that he wanted to include as much humour as possible and make Inherent Vice like a Cheech & Chong film and also have the slapstick approach of the Zucker films. Well considering the ‘plot’ that would make for a fun film in concept at least, and though these intentions are evident and there are laughs to be had there are so many scenes that should have perhaps been left on the cutting room floor and the film is such an effort to watch it just isn’t that much fun overall.
There is no denying Paul Thomas Anderson’s talent as a filmmaker and his passion and eye for detail at authentically creating a unique time and place and the mood that was associated with that unique setting, but at times with Inherent Vice it feels he has forgotten about engaging characters and drama. Next time show more discipline please Paul!
Meandering, often laborious and deeply frustrating; though Inherent Vice still contains PTA’s trademark attention to detail and superb recreations of times and settings, great performances and some very good individual moments, its lack of discipline and inability to make up for its lack of actual substance (no pun intended) makes for an extremely unsatisfying film overall.