Film review: Inherent Vice

David Gritten / 02 February 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews Inherent Vice, the latest offering from highly-regarded American director Paul Thomas Anderson.

There’s no question that this week’s most ‘important’ movie is Inherent Vice – if only because its writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is widely acclaimed as a great American film-maker; rightly so given his credits, which include There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and more recently The Master. Many among us will happily rush to see any film Anderson chooses to make, in a mood of eager anticipation.

Judged by his remarkably high standards, Inherent Vice is faintly disappointing. It remains a film well worth seeing, but its sprawling source material, Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, has proved devilishly hard to adapt: it’s a story with an exhaustingly long list of characters, labyrinthine plots and sub-plots, and a setting – the post-hippie era Los Angeles in the early 70s – that does not lend itself to terse exactitude.

Put it this way:– if you’re looking for a crisp, logical plot, executed with brevity, Inherent Vice is not for you.

The era and the location define the film’s tone; it’s as if there’s a slight aroma of marijuana hanging over every scene, wrapping the story in a woozy haze. The hero (if that’s the right word) is private eye Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix (so brilliant in The Master) as an unrepentant hippie, who unlike Bill Clinton, definitely does inhale; he does his work in a haze. Bushy-sideburned Doc has his contacts inside the LAPD, notably the square, by-the book Lt. Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin); but most local cops look upon Doc with the same suspicion as they would the Manson Family.

The main narrative strand kicks in when Doc is visited by an old girl-friend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) who tells him the wife of her property developer boy-friend (Eric Roberts) is plotting to have him committed.

That’s a sufficiently complicated premise for an entire film, but it barely scratches the surface of Inherent Vice. Along its bumpy, unpredictable ride, Doc is implicated in a murder; he gets hired to investigate the death of a musician (Owen Wilson) who turns to be alive; and there’s a sub-plot about a shadowy drug-smuggling organisation named Golden Fang. Does all this hang together? Not exactly.

I confess to having felt early pangs of irritation at the film’s dazed, shaggy-dog tone, but around the half-hour mark, I decided to giggle inwardly and give in to its mood swings and plot swerves. All the better to appreciate the virtues of Inherent Vice; it is often very funny, and Anderson seizes gleefully upon Pynchon’s love of words and wordplay. Many anecdotes that pass themselves off as sub-plots are genuinely entertaining. Some character names (Petunia Leeway, Agent Borderline) may make you laugh out loud.

And then on a few occasions, Anderson pulls off a scene that vindicates the stature in which he is held. One is a flashback in which Doc recalls running through downtown LA with Shasta in the rain, to the strains of a wistful Neil Young song on the soundtrack. He makes it look simple, but it’s utterly moving. Moments like this make Inherent Vice feel oddly, even implausibly worthwhile.

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