Movie Review: ‘Inherent Vice’ Caught in the Crossroads of Comedy and Noir

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Cole Clay // Senior Staff Writer

Inherent Vice | 148 min. | Rated R | Director: Paul Thomas Anderson | Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph and Eric Roberts

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice focuses on a fleeting moment in the history of American culture. With a funky mindset, this film is at its heart is a hardboiled L.A. noir film (set in 1970) that’s a hazy examination of the changing decades. It’s a convoluted movie that’s difficult to comprehend (which echoes the tone of the Thomas Pynchon novel), but it’s Anderson’s funniest film that revels in the pulpy atmosphere with one idiosyncratic scene after another.

This is an unabridged narrative that lacks commas by throwing one idea out the window and replacing it with another. It’s an exhausting task to wrap your mind around, but this is the type of film you have to turn something off to let it all in, and for that reason alone makes Inherent Vice beautifully elusive.

Anderson chooses to view the pulpy situations through the lens of a bumbling goof named Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is grinding out a living working as a private detective out of a dentist office next to the ocean. You can typically find him rolling a zig-zag, or indulging in a far out hit of laughing gas. His only weakness (besides the devil’s lettuce) is Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), his former lover and resident femme fatale. He has been pining over her since she left him for a real estate mogul (Eric Roberts), which sparks him to put on a pair of “gumshoes” that are at least two sizes too large. The mystery starts with the mogul then leads to a surf rock saxophonist turned government rat (Owen Wilson) and then winds up at a recovery center for troubled youth. And looming in the wings through all this madness is Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who represents the squares of the world as a “civil rights abusing detective” working for the LAPD. They have a disparate buddy-cop relationship that’s made up mostly of Doc reacting to Bigfoot’s radical actions that suggest that he’s not quite as comfortable with being a squeaky-clean square as Doc is with his own wavy, gravy persona.

Reese Witherspoon reunites with her WALK THE LINE co-star, Joaquin Phoenix, in INHERENT VICE. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Reese Witherspoon reunites with her WALK THE LINE co-star, Joaquin Phoenix, in INHERENT VICE. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The conspiracy abound exceeds beyond the reach of Doc and the people surrounding the investigation. Phoenix has his way with playing the fool a bit by trying to connect the dots to a higher power (a drug cartel, or the feds) as he tries to make one connection, he’s pulled down a field of rabbit holes that are seldom resolved. Finding an ending to the whodunit isn’t the point because it would just fly right over Doc’s head anyways. Phoenix portrays Doc as a reactor to the farcical situations, which works to bring the film back to some semblance of reality from the deep rooted dream state.

Anderson has empathy for these people. They, like most of Anderson’s characters, are motivated by power and greed, which is described as our “inherent vices.” The comedic trajectory of the topics are executed by way of Doc, who stands apart from the rest of the pack by being motivated purely by love. His hippy exterior and perpetual drug use make Doc an easy target for many to take a shot at, but none are more comfortable in their own skin as Doc, despite being constantly underestimated.

The screen is sun kissed by the 35 mm cinematography of Nightcrawler director of photography (and frequent PTA collaborator) Robert Elswit. Given the shagginess of the setting, the scenery benefits from the grainy images that are a time machine back to 1970. Doc is morally unambiguous and idealistic as he watches Bigfoot ravenously eat his mound of Mary Jane with only a single tear rolling down his face. Even though his head is foggy his motives are clear.

Inherent Vice opens tomorrow.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.