A stoner private eye in the late 60's is put on a missing-persons case by his seductive ex-girlfriend.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, and Katherine Waterston
Review by Jon Kissel
Inherent Vice has so much plot that it crosses the line into meaninglessness. That isn't said in a bad way. All the different meetings and encounters ultimately serve to fill out the world instead of advance the story. The big reveals aren't driven by Doc; they were mostly going to happen whether he was involved or not. He is a magnifying glass, not a catalyst. What he's magnifying is a highly interesting take on the time period. The arc of the film is one of realization that the counter-culture has been thoroughly co-opted by the establishment. Drugs play a major role, graduating from the benign influence of the weed that Doc dispenses out of a tiny doctor's office to the heroin that is ruining people at the bottom of the supply chain. Those on the top are untouchable, effortlessly blending in with 'polite' society. There's also the grasp of the government, acting through the FBI to subvert good intentions. The hippie ideals are thwarted at every turn while the personages of long-hairs are dismissed as Manson-devotees and junkies. PTA's film, based on Thomas Pynchon's novel, is a dark snapshot of the steps taken to ensure that the upheaval of the 60's would have the smallest impact possible.
As dark as the underlying themes are, Inherent Vice is one of the funnier films of 2014. Brolin's Bigfoot steals the movie, a clomping bull-in-a-china-shop abusing Doc at every turn with his perfect flattop and desperate need for respect. His final scene is a show-stopper, holding eye contact and a grimace while making a fool of himself. Martin Short has several scenes as a dentist and middle-man for the drug trade. He's lately been a comedian that annoys me, but PTA finds a way to indulge his manic abilities while restraining his mugging, a perfect combination that left me wanting more from the character. As Doc's maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Benecio del Toro has a bunch of subtle gags and mannerisms that cracked me up. Doc is in every scene and ties them all together, an ostensible straight man who also knows his way around some physical comedy. He like to break out his notepad, not to dictate what his subject is saying, but to remind himself to question whether what's happening is real. PTA gives him a couple pratfalls that Phoenix nails, such that though I had seen them many times in the trailer, I still laughed heartily. The names sound perfectly ridiculous, and characters take every opportunity to say each one fully and often. This is PTA's funniest film since Boogie Nights.
The female roles aren't as over the top as the males, but they're just as unique and interesting. Reese Witherspoon has a small role as Penny Kimball, a district attorney who hooks up with Doc. They share a scene on a bench that is just a conversation in a single shot that was surprisingly moving, a nice respite from the rapid-fire information coming out of the screen. Jena Malone plays the key character of Hope Harlingen, a former dope addict trying to put her life back together. As Shasta Fay Hepworth (everyone always says the full name), Waterston is more of an impenetrable mystery than the film's plot. She doesn't tip anything about her true intentions, and despite only being in a few scattered scenes, the memory of her feels omnipresent. It's a breakout role from an actress who's melted into the scenery of things like Night Moves and Boardwalk Empire, but is now making a big impression.
A lot of articles about Inherent Vice have focused on the need to rewatch it to figure out what's happening. I look forward to the inevitable rewatch less for plot and more to go back to this world. Taking a page from the Master, PTA stuffs so many themes and sub-themes into his film that truly understanding what he's trying to say would require a lot of time. On the other hand, there's constant references to mysticism and urban legends, unknowable ideas that are likely half-baked or outright false. Doc spends time at a spa with what he thinks is an Indian name, bringing in customers on the allure of the exotic East. He later learns that it's Greek. He's being deceived, but that doesn't mean there isn't pleasure to be had at the spa. Sometimes, knowing all the details is less important than going along for the ride. Though it lacks the transcendent grasp of his several masterpieces, PTA's Inherent Vice is well worth the ticket. B+