Larry “Doc” Sportello, an unorthodox private-eye (Joaquin Phoenix) smokes a joint in his California shore-house–the waves on one side, and a whole mess of bad vibes on the other. Then in walks his ex-old lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), brining some of those bad vibes with her. She’s with a married man now, Mickey Wolfmann, and his wife wants her help to make off with his money and get him sent to a loony-bin. Through a cloud of marijuana smoke, Doc barely manages to mumble, “I think I’ve heard of that happening once or twice.” Agreed, Doc, that does seem pretty predictable. But then Wolfmann disappears and so does Shasta and the body count begins to climb. What follows is one of the most unique and unexpected trips of 2014. Inherent Vice throws the audience into the year 1970. Everyone wants to just smoke a joint and love each other, but they can’t seem to stop the wave of paranoia that’s overtaking them. As Doc delves deeper into the seemingly infinite mystery that unravels, neither he nor the audience is ever sure who to trust. One of these beautifully morally ambiguous characters is Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who gets plenty of screen-time and spends most of it eating frozen bananas and railing against hippies. Brolin and Phoenix’s on-screen chemistry is off the charts, and the complicated relationship between their characters is explored through scenes of extreme hilarity. At the same time that I was questioning Bigfoot’s moral compass and how dedicated he really is to justice, I was watching the screen through a filter of tears from laughter.
Many have been calling Inherent Vice a combination of Chinatown and The Big Lebowski, and that’s a pretty accurate description. It blends the beautiful look and complicated plot of neo-noir films with an almost surreal kind of stoner-comedy and it meshes perfectly. It also pulls from retro-noir films like Sunset Blvd. and utilizes a large deal of narration. Noir films usually blend exposition with character development in their narration–The male protagonist narrates and his beautifully crafted sentences highlight how tough he is and how fed up with everything he’s become–but Inherent Vice takes a different route entirely. Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) narrates and exposition comes packaged together with an almost sentimental poetry that adds a layer to the loving, yet distrustful view of the Californian landscape. Sortilège is a highly mysterious character that takes a lot of the narration verbatim from the novel by Thomas Pynchon that this film is based on. She’s a seemingly omniscient, psychedelic chick who navigates the screen on a physical plane, but also enters and leaves Doc’s mind through voice-over when she sees fit.
Paul Thomas Anderson directs and this is another movie to add to his seemingly air-tight repertoire (Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood, Magnolia). He lets the actors navigate the screen with minimum editing and allows entire dialogue scenes happen in one take. This is a risky move– cutting is usually used to increase humor or add suspense, but somehow this movie manages without it. I can’t stress enough how humorous Doc’s interactions with other characters are. And the more tense scenes thrust Doc into danger with little to no warning and effectively get the heart racing.
I’m sure a lot of people will complain about the complexity of the plot in this one. As Doc makes his way through a haze of pot smoke, conspiracies, and government corruption more and more names are dropped and exactly what’s going and on and who’s pulling the strings becomes almost impossible to make out upon first viewing. This is because plot takes the backseat to the film’s powerful entertainment value and its themes. When I watched it for the first time, I honestly didn’t know what was happening after the half-way point, but I barely had time to think about it because I was so engrossed by the little episodes that the movie presents. One of my favorite scenes features Doc and Shasta in a flashback as they run through the rain with Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” playing in the background. The music takes priority over the dialogue and I wanted to weep for this beautiful moment that was now lost in the “city dump” of Doc’s memory. It cuts to Doc navigating the same area in present day and the vacant lot that him and Shasta had been running freely through has now been occupied by a building shaped like a Golden Fang–a symbol of the criminal organization that plagues the characters throughout their journeys.
And that, to me, is what the movie is all about. The simplicity of blissful ignorance being slowly replaced with growing knowledge of the darker side of the American dream. 1970 is the perfect year for this drama to unfold–characters can’t stop talking about Charles Manson, and distrust of police is just beginning to evolve. Something wicked has been lying in wait and the movie takes place in that small window where optimism began to shrink back in the American mind and people began ignoring hitchhikers and locking their doors. The insane complexity of the plot only serves to highlight this more–great evil is operating under the surface, but Doc can never be totally sure how much of it is just in his head, or who is pulling the levers. Or maybe everyone’s got a lever except for him. It’s tough to tell when you’re lightin’ up a J and just trying to help somebody out.
10 out of 10 stars