I feel old. Like a cranky Clint Eastwood telling kids to get off my lawn. Back aches and sore knees. 10:00 bedtimes. Why do I feel my age times two? I saw Inherent Vice, the latest film from director Paul Thomas Anderson based off of the Thomas Pynchon novel. Despite some great performances, electric energy and spot on humor, I have to shrug my shoulders. I just didn’t get it. Yet I desperately want to see it again.
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, The Village) plays 70’s era stoner Doc Sportello, a halfhearted private eye. Things are going fine for our buzzed out hero when his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) walks into his run down beach house with a case: her new lover, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) is about to be put in an insane asylum by his jealous wife. As Doc dives into the caper, the waters spin into a madness sauce of pancake loving cops, loan sharks and cocaine snorting dentists.
It’s bizarre but effectively so. Very reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, without the rapid fire prose, Inherent Vice creates a surreal world of oddball characters. Nobody is trustworthy, which gives the at times incoherent storyline tension and intrigue. As much as you try, you’ll never know what’s going to happen next.
Everything is supported by another exceptional performance by Joaquim Phoenix. Always great at playing offbeat, borderline insane characters, Phoenix is an instantly likable protagonist. What he’s not great at is enunciating. While not as bad as his whispery delivery in The Village, Phoenix’s marble mouthed diction makes it tough to follow the complex plotline.
Yep. Extraordinarily complex. Full of dips, turns and nonsensical sidebars into complete madness, the central plot of Doc trying to help out an ex in need is surrounded by a web of what the f**k. A fantastic supporting cast makes the journey a ton of fun, but I never quite knew where I was going. Plots don’t need to be road-mapped but some sort of guiding compass would have been nice.
That doesn’t mean the movie is lacking quality. Far from it. Anderson has directing chops to spare and his skill is in full force in Inherent Vice. Scenes like the now famous “moto pancaku” and a wondrous long shot of Doc reuniting with Shasta are perfectly paced and expertly shot.
The film is also outrageously funny thanks to a knock out supporting cast. Highlights include a hilarious Josh Brolin as the straight-laced cop, Martin Short as the aforementioned drug taking dentist and Benicio Del Toro almost reprising his Fear and Loathing role as Doc’s lawyer pal. Even Owen Wilson makes a surprise appearance as a missing saxophone player on the lam.
When I walked out of the theater, hunched over and rubbing my back, a single number shone through the haze of film induced pot smoke that (figuratively) filled my head. Seven out of ten. As you’ll see below, I’ve bumped up that score. Like a silhouetted skyline on a foggy evening, Inherent Vice is something in the distance that you either see or don’t see. It’s either clear as day or muddy lake water. Just because it wasn’t there on my first viewing doesn’t mean it won’t pop into view for somebody else.
In the end, I desperately want to get the whole picture of this fantastically strange world of addicts and good natured criminals. You can’t deny the great performances. You can’t escape the spot on comedy. You can’t ignore the moments of stunning beauty. Destined to become a cult classic, Inherent Vice is like a modern art painting or a Phillip Glass song. Some of us will take a little more time to fully appreciate it.
Score: 8 out of 10