Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice will certainly leave the most common moviegoer baffled with their own experience although given the source material that won’t turn out surprising at all. But it’s hard enough for me trying to describe what Inherent Vice will leave behind just from a single viewing because it almost feels like a hallucination as it moves by. Yet at the same time, we’re caught up inside of a web of lies almost like a Philip Marlowe story. Inherent Vice is a blend of eras and it’s the sort of experiment that only a filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson himself could bring to the table in such a manner. But in this indulgence, Paul Thomas Anderson also manages to summarize on the spot what exactly Inherent Vice is about, because of how much we can take in from one go to that point it’s so baffling yet it still keeps us watching. It keeps us watching because it’s absolutely wonderful in that sense, because it’s Paul Thomas Anderson at his craziest, and if that doesn’t signify something good I don’t know what will.
I’m not even sure a basic summary would even get to the bones of what one will be seeing out of Inherent Vice, but I’ll try my best. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a private investigator who also lives a life as a drug addict in 1970’s Los Angeles. Narrated by the always lovely Joanna Newsom (who plays Sortilège in the film), we follow Doc as he finds himself caught within three differing cases all of which happen to tie back to the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, at least that’s what one can gather from what they’re seeing on the surface. But perhaps it’s this lack of accessibility that only finds itself most fitting for adapting Thomas Pynchon to the big screen. Small details even find themselves becoming so much more complicated in Inherent Vice, but therein lies what’s beautiful about the craziness that’s reflected in Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. It just comes, goes, and only raises up a feeling of mass hysteria like a drug trip would.
Within Inherent Vice, what’s presented is the mystery unfolding right from the eyes of Doc Sportello – but he’s fighting against the flow of time as we look through the nostalgia of the era in which the film is set in. In his own eyes, nothing makes sense, even the simplest details that would ring as rational end up lacking any semblance of coherence – but in there comes what’s so wonderful about Inherent Vice. The whole film reflects paranoia so brilliantly, because it brings its own audience to a point where it’s hard to tell what is even going on anymore, yet nevertheless it also finds itself at its funniest moments as a result of this. Paul Thomas Anderson is no stranger to weaving story threads all into one to form something bigger (there comes Magnolia, which I still think is his best film), but the Robert Altman influence is especially evident here. For Anderson isn’t merely emulating The Long Goodbye all over again, he feels confident in experimenting with the senses of the mystery in order to create a labyrinthine feeling throughout its 148 minute running time, and not a minute wasted.
Indulgence is yet another feeling that Inherent Vice evokes, because Paul Thomas Anderson is finding himself going completely unhinged with what the source material is opening himself up to as a whole. Inherent Vice is one moment a hilarious stoner comedy along the lines of the Coen brothers’ magnificent The Big Lebowski and then the next moment it even draws back towards Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep specifically), and 1970’s Los Angeles whether it be in the neon or the set pieces. Paul Thomas Anderson is just finding his greatest freedoms as an artist with Inherent Vice as his own canvas, for everywhere one looks it’s clearly a work so invested with doing what exactly it can do with the many sorts of films it can turn out to be, and it’s the comfort in being everything all at once that makes it so wonderful. Paul Thomas Anderson’s eye behind the camera only takes in what’s breathtaking about the period from his visual flair and creates something so hazy yet so hypnotic.
The source of all of the craziness that we witness in Inherent Vice is a product of both Joaquin Phoenix as he plays Doc Sportello, alongside Paul Thomas Anderson’s writing. Joaquin Phoenix plays the role in a sense it draws back to Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep as a private eye, yet also as a stoner in the veins of Dazed and Confused‘s Slater – because in this character is where the soul of Inherent Vice lies. The whole film is so immersed within the mind of Doc Sportello, and Joaquin Phoenix just captures the paranoia far too perfectly. In supporting roles come the lovely Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, all signifying other stages of his mind in some odd sense just as their own roles add more to the hypnosis that Inherent Vice leaves behind while it lasts. Anderson always had a way with introducing his characters just so they could leave a big impact and Inherent Vice isn’t a stranger to that.
What even makes sense in Inherent Vice? I wouldn’t have an answer other than to say, why would it all matter, as we witness all of this indulgence take place on the screen when it’s so hypnotic? Inherent Vice is Paul Thomas Anderson’s own fever dream, a noir that encapsulates the paranoia of such an era while almost modern in Anderson’s own hands. Nostalgic, sexy, mysterious, funny, confusing, baffling – all among many of the words that one can throw in order to describe their own experience with watching Inherent Vice, but the most important thing about it is how absolutely crazy it is as a whole. All of this craziness is both expected and unexpected on the ends of Paul Thomas Anderson, but as a whole it’s only breathtaking in the best sense. There’s no doubt that Inherent Vice will continue to baffle people of all sorts no matter what they’ve already been able to experience from Paul Thomas Anderson but there’s only more reason there for Inherent Vice to become a film to define the decade as one of the best.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson, from the novel by Thomas Pynchon
Produced by JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short
Release Year: 2014
Running Time: 149 minutes