– Interpreting the ambling and sonic prose of author Thomas Pynchon has eluded filmmakers until now. Director Paul Thomas Anderson takes a whack at “Inherent Vice,” and although much of the film has his usual eminent vision, as a whole it makes for difficult sledding. Inherent Vice is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.
This is a “far out” story of a post-1960s burn out, who thinks of himself as a private investigator. When he gets caught in a web of intrigue involving his old girlfriend, it is the voices outside and inside his head that tell him to keep going. It’s definitely fun to live in the post-1960s world (it’s set in 1970) and there are some nice jabs along the way, but this is also the ‘70s as interpreted through a director and actor who were at best little kids back then. Hell, even I was a little kid. It’s parallel universe time, and why not? That is what the movies do best. There are parts of this film that are absolutely groovy, but as a whole may leave you scratching the old head trip.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator, but does most of his investigations inside his own soul through copious pot use. An old gal pal named Shasta (Katherine Waterston) ambles back into his life, launching a mystery as to what she has been doing – having an affair with a Los Angeles real estate mogul named Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and suddenly disappearing with him after connecting with Doc.
As Doc starts to unravel the clues to her whereabouts, he gets a beating for his nosiness from “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), the local police detective who purports to be Doc’s “inside” man. The key to this whole scenario could lie with D.A. Penny (Reese Witherspoon), Jade (Hong Chau), wacky dentist Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short), dead or alive rocker Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), Doc’s attorney, Smilax (Benecio Del Toro) or Doc’s “friend” Sortilége (Joanna Newsom).
Ah yes, Doc’s friend Sortilége. Her earth goddess presence in the film also narrates the Thomas Pynchon prose that may or may not advance the story. She floats above the action, and appears in key moments. Her distinct voice gives the film its flavor, and she is one of the highlights of the story, especially when she chooses to appear. Joanna Newsom is ripe for the role.
There are a lot of characters associated with this case, and they all have their specific agendas (usually and prolifically shared with Doc) who, like the director and the story, sometimes has a hard time focusing. This altitude can float back down through the audience, and maybe a little herbal energy of choice could clear up some things, although it doesn’t seem to help Doc. Joaquin Phoenix does his best “Dude” impression, but it’s a bit one note.
The supporting cast is fun, and the quintessential California girl – both mysterious and exposed – might have been found in the resplendent Katherine Waterston as Shasta. Martin Short stays right on the edge of wackiness with his cruel and obsessive dentist, and reminds us that many of his old comedy characters were cruel as well. Josh Brolin, pushing typecasting as the straight-arrow Los Angeles detective, does Joe Friday one better by his final scene, hilarious and symbolic of the whole enchilada.
Paul Thomas Anderson is an auteur, creating his distinct mark in the cinema world, but Inherent Vice is softly missing something. This is in opposition to his earlier vague efforts like Magnolia, The Master and There Will be Blood, which all seemed to work better. It’s about the connection, and although the one in this film is much more difficult to wind your way into. It’s not impossible, and it has all the earmarks of a future cult midnight movie.Our world is so different from the early 1970s, as different as someone from the horse-and-buggy era must have felt about landing on the moon back then. In a rapidly changing technological age, maybe the solutions to our situation lies in a mumbling private investigator who looks like John Lennon in 1975. If only we could understand him, but maybe we should try.
Inherent Vice was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Warner Home Video on April 28th, 2015. Featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Hong Chau, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated “R”
A variation on this review originally appeared at HollywoodChicago.com