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USA 2015
Directed by
Paul Thomas Anderson
148 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Inherent Vice

Synopsis: It’s LA in the Seventies and Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shambolic, dope smoking private eye who’s just taken on a case from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She’s been having an affair with real-estate tycoon, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts,) but his wife, it seems, wants Shasta’s help in a plot to commit Wolfmann to a mental hospital. When the tycoon and the ex-girlfriend both disappear, Doc finds himself swept up in a world of surfers, stoners, Nazi bikers, quack doctors, Feds and local law enforcement as he tries to solve the puzzle. At the same time he takes on two more cases; tracking down a member of the Ayrian Brotherhood who owes his client money, and finding Coy Harlington (Owen Wilson), a missing saxophone player who may or may not be dead. When both cases spiral back to Mickey Wolffman, Doc finds himself in over his head and crossing paths with his nemesis; hard boiled, hippie-hating cop,  Christian F “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

Inherent Vice is a very ambitious movie from a filmmaker who is no stranger to ambitious projects and, for the most part, Paul Thomas Anderson pulls it off. It’s a little like Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty meets Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep on acid and, like the latter film, if you try too hard to decipher the convoluted plot, you’ll go out of your mind and miss the ‘big picture’ enjoyment of just going with the flow and letting the milieu of the movie - its sexy style, its great visuals and its compelling performances - wash over you.

Which is not to say that the film’s plot is inconsequential.  It’s not. But like all good noir, it propels our hero (and, thereby, us) through a web of intrigue and mystifying clues that we trust will coalesce in some satisfying form by the end of the film. In the meantime, we’re just happy to join Doc in his encounters with the low-lives and detritus of this tawdry town and the ample supply of femmes fatale who await him along the way (was it Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler who said the key to these stories is to get the detective to the next scene where he can flirt with a girl? I forget.). Phoenix is at his best in this kind of role where he plays it just behind the beat as he stumbles from one debacle to the next without ever once losing the sympathy of the audience. And the perfect counterpoint to this is Brolin who rampages through the film in a role that brings complexity and depth to the kind of thuggish cop that can so easily wind up laughably two dimensional (need I make reference to his earlier outing in Gangster Squad ?).

There are so many great characters in this film and the big and small name cast breathe vivid life into them even when they only have one or two scenes within which to do so. In addition to those already mentioned there are great performances by Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s dishevelled lawyer and Reece Witherspoon as his Deputy District Attorney squeeze, although Martin Short’s clownish performance as drug dispensing dentist, Rudy Blatnoyd feels like it might belong in an entirely different film. The biggest let down is how little screen time Eric Roberts gets, given it’s a role in which he could have really shown off his acting chops and he doesn’t seem to get roles like that too often. But in a film made up of so many small gems of individual character scenes, it’s hard not to want to see more of all of them and that’s probably to the film’s credit.

Much has been made of the fact that this is the first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, no doubt due to the virtuosity of Pynchon’s writing that sets a pretty big challenge to the screenwriter. In his 2007 film, There Will Be Blood, Anderson used Upton Sinclair’s novel "Oil!" more as a launching pad for the screenplay, but here he chooses to stay very faithful to Pynchon’s terrific novel, almost to the detriment of the film. Whilst the book’s dialogue is sharp and sassy enough to be lifted straight onto the screen, the decision to expand and reposition the minor character of Doc’s friend Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) into the film’s narrator and to use the book’s prose as the language of her voice-overs seems based more on reverence for the author than good storytelling. Still, while it detracts from the overall energy and edginess of the film, it doesn’t really diminish Anderson’s accomplishment.

In the end, I can’t say I understood everything of who did what to whom and why, but I didn’t really mind. It was a wild ride that, unlike a lot of long films, didn’t feel like it overstayed its welcome. Plus, answering some of those unanswered questions will no doubt motive me to go and see it again. And that’s no bad thing.

FYI: Fans of off-beat neo-noir may also find interest in 2009's The Missing Person.with Michael Shannon as a modern day post 9/11 New York gumshoe.




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