“Inherent Vice” (Director: Paul Thomas Anderson) – * star (out of ****)
Released December 12, 2014
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography by Robert Elswitt
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Joanna Newsom, a certain bad-ass actor who would have been a WAY better Batman than Ben Affleck, Katherine Waterston (net worth: $1 million), Reese Witherspoon — seems a bit low, doesn’t it?), Benicio Del Toro
Running Time: 148 minutes
Budget: $20 million
Worldwide Box Office: $14.7 million
At least we have a movie with which we can assign a face to the phrase, “too smart by half.” Because this is that movie. Here’s the thing about this one: much like Anderson’s last movie, “The Master,” his apologists have accused haters of appreciating the fact that “Inherent Vice”’s plot doesn’t make classical sense – to which I would retort that, actually, I pretty much got the gist of the plot, to the degree that there was one. Also, in keeping with the critics reception of “The Master,” “Vice” netted wholly unwarranted positive reviews.
Essentially, we follow Joaquin Phoenix murmuring his way through Neil Young’s muttonchops as “Doc” Sportello, a cagey stoner private detective. He jets across beautifully photographed Los Angeles landscapes, following one red herring after another. He is pursuing a circuitous case for his evasive ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston — and yes, she is the daughter of this man) that involves slumlord real estate magnate Eric Roberts, who has been cheating on his wife with Shasta and funneling money for heroin dealers. Shasta disappears, and as Doc kinda-sorta tracks her, he is pursued kinda-sorta doggedly by Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a kinda-sorta crooked, frozen banana-loving L.A.P.D. beat cop (Josh Brolin, handily the best thing in this movie). He runs into gorgeous women, whose posteriors are followed in what feels like 100% of this movie’s tracking shots — this technique will inevitably remind the viewer of PT Anderson’s incomparably superior “Boogie Nights,” another ’70s epic that’s actually, you know, trying to say something.
He runs into Owen Wilson playing what I think, if I kept track of it properly, is a triple-agent, Clay Harlingen. He fucks Reese Witherspoon, playing Penny Kimball, a double-crossing D.A. and his sometime lover. There are actually a bunch of other, distracting character-actor cameos. Half the conceit of each actor’s appearance is that, holy camel balls, LOOK WHO IT IS IN THAT FUNNY ’70S WIG. I guess principally, it would be wrong of me to spoil all of the celebrity appearances in this movie, because that’s designed to be part of the fun… But fuck this fucking movie, here are your cameos: Michael Kenneth Williams plays an ex-con trying to hire Doc to investigate a skinhead who’s doing bodyguard work for the shady crook who murdered Brolin’s partner. PTA’s wife Maya Rudolph plays Doc’s receptionist, Petunia Leeway. Martin Short plays a coke-head dentist, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, who may or may not be smuggling heroin (spoiler: he is). Benicio Del Toro is Joaquin Phoenix’s attorney, Sauncho Smilax, and yes, they have a dialogue-mumbling contest (Phoenix wins by a hair, which is I guess kind of an upset, since Del Toro won an Independent Spirit Award for aggressive mumbling). Jena Malone plays Owen Wilson’s reformed dope-fiend wife, Hope. That covers everybody.
Again, I said I could follow the thing, I didn’t say it was particularly easy, fun or rewarding to follow. Here’s the best part of this labyrinthine, relentlessly boring plot: it doesn’t even matter. It’s just content and noise, window dressing around a greater evocative atmosphere of… California dropout philosophy noodlings, I guess. I kind of expected that given what I’ve heard about Thomas Pynchon, but I didn’t realize how few fucks “Inherent Vice” gives about whatever the fuck it’s supposed to fucking be about. When, as a viewer, you realize that the whole complicated story you’ve been paying careful attention to doesn’t actually matter in the slightest when it gets more or less resolved half the way through the movie; that you’ve just been left to watch characters you don’t really like just sort of… hang around and smoke weed while what’s left of the story kind of peters out; and that you don’t understand ANYBODY’S motivation save, ultimately, Owen Wilson’s… that’s when it hits you: this movie has just wasted 148 minutes of your life. The ending is especially confounding, as Phoenix’s Doc performs a selfish act of charity to help a character we’ve maybe seen four times and barely know what side he’s on. What really annoys me is that I was basically on-board with “Inherent Vice” for the first hour or so, but it wore me down with its incessantly rudderless M.O.
Yes, this makes a little more surface-sense than “Under The Skin” or “The Rover” (and those movies made sense too, kind of, but were barely more exciting than watching fucking paint dry), but it’s equally culpable of feeling like a frustrating waste of the talent it employs in front of and behind the camera. Brolin and Phoenix are actually pretty good in it, and their characters clearly have the most fun when they’re on the screen together. But a little of the Phoenix character goes a long way, and because his motivations and internal psychology are never conveyed effectively (a Pynchon-scripted voice-over wraparound supplied by Joanna Newsom’s character, Sortilege, tries, and fails, to shed some light on this very subject). I’d much rather have watched this movie through the eyes of the corrupt Brolin character, a square, workaholic cop with a mounting therapy bill trying to navigate his way through the criminal underworld via hippy-dippy ’70s Los Angeles. The Phoenix character is so one-note that his shtick wears thin around the start of Hour Deux (again, out of a relentless two and a half).
To the PTA apologist, I would paraphrase a classic Red Letter Media question: “Describe the characters in ‘Inherent Vice’ WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was.” Outside of Josh Brolin’s genuinely interesting and developed Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, I fucking dare you to tell me anything outside of “they’re kind of mumbly” and “they alternately love or hate hippies (depending on which character you’re describing).” A PTA caveat: I loved “Hard Eight.” I loved “Boogie Nights.” I loved “Magnolia.” What happened to THAT Paul Thomas Anderson, the world beater? Who’s this new guy? And how the FUCK did he get nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at last year’s Oscars? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Then, to top things off, Anderson supplies us with a hot doggy-style couch sex scene featuring a reunited Shasta and Doc that… basically takes place in real time. Another, final sign that the man no longer has any idea of how to self-edit.
Alex, Greg Brecher and Evan Twohy talk further about PT Anderson’s frustrating qualitative nosedive and the evolution of bad prestige movies in the podcast Critically Acclaimed And Secretly Reviled: The New Art-house Cinema, 9/24/15.