Shrouded by a marijuana haze, a stoner chuckles at something and so do you. This is the prevailing feeling of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Inherent Vice, a stoner noir based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Its pleasures are cotton candy fluff—ephemeral bits of oddness that catch you off guard, like the sudden changes of subject that make conversation with the affably high so appealing. If you are a fan of the limited coherence that comes with altered mental states, here is a movie that may tickle you.
However, the fleeting nature of such things is just as much a mark against the movie as it is the reason it’s worth watching. Nothing ever lingers, so once it’s over, you’re left with the vague memory that Vice was something you enjoyed, but without the ability to recall any specific details. That right there is probably the biggest strike against Vice and its two-and-a-half hour runtime: momentum constantly dissipates as soon as you’re ready for it to set in, and by the end of the story you’re left feeling pretty OK but otherwise unfazed. Since every scene feels like it begins in medias res after a particularly lengthy toke, perhaps this slippery quality is simply an indication that the movie is flawed by design. As such, Inherent Vice is a decent movie with a huge margin of error for how much you’ll enjoy it. My guess for most folks is “moderately.”
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private investigator, is approached by his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), to look into what she believes to be a plot to involuntarily commit her current boyfriend, a married real estate mogul, by his wife and her lover. Doc’s investigation runs up against both sides of the law, annoying the LAPD, especially hard-ass detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), while uncovering a crime ring that has its influence spread across seemingly everything.
Comparison to The Big Lebowski is inescapable. All in all, Inherent Vice feels like a loose reinterpretation of that movie’s bizarre genre mashup that occasionally dips into harder drugs, giving it a more precarious emotional keel.
Characters constantly peddle emotional dishonesty to realize purely selfish goals, a dark undercurrent that’s depicted by one of the movie’s weirder cinematic quirks. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit employ a great number of two-shots—in fact, they strictly adhere to them—shoving tertiary characters out of frame so that two characters can square off alone to see who wins the scene. When characters are really talking, we get a steady angle with no motion or the most imperceptible of slow zooms. Sometimes, there’s a standoffish series of shot reverse shots. It’s an interesting, style-light way of communicating these dynamics, and it’s curious to see a movie with such a large cast insist upon such tight compositions for dialogue. These shots provide each scene with a certain level of hyperfocus, allowing the actors to do some great work bouncing off of each other.
If there is one actor to highlight, Phoenix would be the easy choice. Doc is a wonderful combination of lackadaisical and slightly paranoid, carried through a plot that is becoming unbelievably knotted by both his efforts and the vagaries of coincidence. Phoenix has proven himself to be an actor with a supreme command of physicality, and his deep work with Anderson on The Master reveals a sillier side here. Doc sits around a lot, lazing about, but he always carries a nervous kink which can explode at any time into a weird expression or a literal headlong jump into trouble. Under Anderson’s direction, every actor here turns in a reasonable performance at the very least, each tapping into a different vein of amusingly weird. But while Vice displays a great deal of good acting, it is hard to equate that with good character writing.
Doc doesn’t have a true motivation. He is ostensibly pushed forward by his concern and unextinguished love for Shasta, but he never seems to work especially hard to get things moving. Inherent Vice vacillates between Doc’s sometimes-passionate and sometimes-casual search for the truth, just as it vacillates between rewarding his clever investigation and leaving the plot up to stumbles into coincidence. It feels like Phoenix is playing an inconsistent character or even an incomplete one. Every other character is even more thinly realized than Doc, which ultimately leaves me lost as to the story’s true thematic intent when I’m ready to read past the jokes.
I am left wondering if Inherent Vice is a more effective companion piece to the novel than it is an adaptation. The many mysteries of the story come together like a series of linked mazes. But knowing they all have the same exit doesn’t help much when the overlapping details overwhelm you long before you get there. The movie’s frustrating commitment to indecisiveness plays into this as well. When Vice lets the plot fall by the wayside, the characters are left free to wander, leading to the most memorable comedy and, likewise, its best images. But Anderson does want the audience to piece everything together somewhat, so for every set amount of fun, we have to sit through one of several infodumps of exposition. It’s not the worst, considering Anderson’s otherwise silly screenplay, but it is absolutely inelegant. It feels like the movie is set on an inexplicably boring autopilot every time it happens. These scenes read as Anderson hedging his bets, setting out every necessary hint so that a first-time viewer could conceivably follow the plot. He would have to concentrate very, very hard, but it would be possible. It just seems odd that the solution chosen would be one that basically necessitates meandering.
I don’t remember the ending to Inherent Vice. That is, I don’t remember the words, or the themes, or the point. The movie had already lost me with its jarring pit stops into exposition and its various inconsistencies. However, the idea that Inherent Vice is flawed by design is unshakable and that might be what saves it. After all, even the title is a reference to the very concept. It’s a stoner noir, it’s an interesting period piece, and it’s a great comedy more than half the time. Most importantly, it still feels like a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And while the words escape me, I do remember the feeling of the ending. A somber composition by Jonny Greenwood transitions right into a bright ’70s pop song, and Doc’s frown turns into a winning smile for the audience. It’s no grand finale, but it’s nice.
Inherent Vice is out now in theaters nationwide