Incoherent Vice would be a much more suitable title.
Incohesive, long, and dialogue-heavy, Inherent Vice has all the potential to flounder. Yet under the steady (or rather, wild) hands of director Paul Thomas Anderson, the film becomes a psychedelic, incredibly enjoyable ride brimming with wit and melancholy. The film follows Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (played in routinely magnificent fashion by the now ever-reliable Joaquin Phoenix), and his exploits to help his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fey (Katherine Waterston, also exquisite) investigate a kidnapping of notorious real-estate billionaire Mickey Wolfmann. From there, the plot descends (or ascends, depending on your perspective of the film) into sumptuous lunacy; a mystery involving the coveted and secretive ‘Golden Fang’, a fascinating encounter with a figure named Adrian Prussia, and a charming, nostalgic tale involving a Ouija board all intertwined into the flick’s increasingly crazed plot.
It’s a stoner noir that gives the audience the impression of being stoned themselves – a startling achievement by both P.A Anderson and Thomas Pynchon, the writer of the book that this flick is adapted from. It’s not about the end result, but about the journey; plot threads aimlessly disappear and reappear, often left unresolved amid the concoction of brewing story lines; told from the perspective of Doc’s weed-frazzled mind. Yet despite the apparent attempt to confuse and toy with the audience, the flick is never not-fascinating. As the opening credits appear, you’ll find a big grin spreading across your face – barely disappearing during Inherent Vice’s 148-minute run time.
Part of this is due to the film’s soundtrack – just like its plot, it’s a daring and muddled mix in equal measures, an amalgamation of Jonny Greenwood’s terrifically periodic score, and the various offerings of artists, each with a booming, bombastic track to deftly support what’s on screen; Vitamin C, Here Come the Ho-Dads, Simba, and Les Fleur all stand-out as proudly and brilliantly as Doc’s sideburns. They also help contribute to Inherent Vice’s wonderful, tonal atmosphere – the turn of the 1970’s portrayed on screen with expert precision.
The atmosphere created is also helped enormously by the director’s use of large format film, fabricating a musty, saturated quality that wouldn’t be possible to produce otherwise. Inherent Vice also features the best cinematography of any film released in 2014 – which is saying a lot when considering Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel were both released last year. Each shot is filmed with typical P.A Anderson-ian perfection, outmuscling his previous effort, The Master, for beauty alone.
And all this praise without truly referring to the acting – yes, the acting is something special too. Joaquin Phoenix brings his deranged, frustratedly lackadaisical persona to the forefront, and it works wonders. Doc is equal measures of composure and insanity, a brewing mix of hippie goodness that is juxtaposed expertly by the straight-faced ‘Bigfoot’ (Josh Brolin), a hippie-hatin’ detective that surprisingly features as the figure that prises the most laughs from the audience. Less surprisingly, he’s portrayed excellently by Brolin, shrouding himself in a subtly affectionate sentimentality; his character depth, where sexuality and sentiments towards Doc remain ambiguous throughout, elevates the film to a whole other stratosphere. He’s a character with a comical facade and an aura of sadness.
Katherine Waterston, who plays the main female lead as Doc’s ex-girlfriend, must be mentioned too. A relatively unknown face, she brings fragility and vulnerability to the storyline, where her chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix forms much of the crux of the film. She stands out expertly in one particular scene – a sensual, sorrowful discussion with Doc that culminates in silently affectionate sex; leaving the audience in a similarly hushed state. The scene is a showcase of Waterston’s acting range and capabilities, and she handles the challenging task with aplomb.
The same can be said for all of Inherent Vice’s bloated jumble of characters, each adroitly played; Martin Short helming a terrific cameo, and only Owen Wilson debatedly miscast. Their encounters with Doc contribute as the overall chassis of the plot, and if you can withstand the initial tedium, it plays out beautifully. Inherent Vice works on so many levels; an accurate portrayal of life in 1970, an intriguing mystery and crime drama, a fantastic character-study, and a poignant tale of love and paranoia. Inherent Vice may not be for everyone, but if it works, it works wonders – a gem of a film with a myriad of vibrant characters and a plot as smart as it is unhinged.
– Gus Edgar