Inherent Vice (2014) / Mystery-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence
Running Time: 148 min.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Hong Chau, Serena Scott Thomas, Belladonna, Martin Donovan
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon)

Review published January 13, 2015

To varying degrees, I've loved Paul Thomas Anderson's output thus far, and his Magnolia happens to be the most recent film I give five stars to, so I anticipate each successive release in the hope that he has another masterpiece in him. He may come close, or he may not, but he always makes something interesting. The Master was a bit of a deflation in his focus, as it felt like ideas in search of a plot.  Inherent Vice sees Anderson going too far in the other direction, feeling like too much plot in search of a central idea.

Unfortunately, Inherent Vice finds Anderson at his most handcuffed, artistically, and therefore, it ranks, at least in my mind, as his least successful work to date.  Too much plot, too many characters, and, even at 2.5 hours in length, not nearly enough room to breathe, or even build up suspense.  Perhaps as a mini-series on HBO in the vein of "True Detective", Anderson might have given Thomas Pynchon's 2009 postmodern novel something we can sink our teeth into.  Anderson feels like he's quixotically scrambling to fit all of what he wants in with his big-screen release, whisking us through potentially interesting moments in anticipation of the next kooky character or story twist he's setting up.

Like most of Anderson's works, it is well shot, with good use of music, period wardrobe, and lingo -- it does feel like a film from 1970, the year that Inherent Vice is set.  We get plenty of that era's staples, from free love, abundant drugs, and cultural dichotomy, much of which is explored for sporadically interesting and amusing intent.  It also dabbles and twists at the conventional detective story, though it does so by having the actual investigator perhaps the least reliable deducer of events, to the point where we're left in an unsettled position, not quite finding comfort in where things are headed, if they're headed anywhere at all.

The labyrinthine plot involves a hippie Los Angeles private investigator named Doc Sportello (Phoenix, Her), who is tipped off to a case by his ex-lover Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston, Night Moves), involving the whereabouts and dealing of her current main squeeze, a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts, Lovelace), a man with quite a few enemies, including, possibly, Shasta herself.  Doc sets about following lead to lead, and eccentric character to eccentric character, discovering a web of underhanded dealings from police corruption, to prostitution, to an elaborate heroin smuggling operation. However, Doc's faculties are in question, as what he sees, or thinks he sees, could be real, or merely a part of his fanciful drugged-out imagination.

There's no question in my mind that P.T. Anderson is one of this generation's great filmmakers, but even someone with his prodigious skills is perhaps biting off more than he can chew by trying to untangle with wild and elaborate style of the idiosyncratic Pynchon and make it a cinematic rendition in a quirky manner of the Coen Brothers, if they decided to channel Robert Altman's sprawling narrative style.  It certainly piques the curiosity, but never seems to settle into a defined groove, even one of insane audaciousness or surreal psychedelia, leaving us to admire the jigsaw puzzle for its pieces more so than the picture they're supposed to represent when put together as a whole.

What we're left to appreciate is not only the visual and auditory delights of Anderson's style, but also about a dozen or so fine supporting performances from a very game cast, with an especially funny turn by Josh Brolin (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) as the crewcut-sporting police detective, "Bigfoot" Bjornson, who sticks his nose in Doc's case whenever possible.  Phoenix always seems to lose himself in just about any role, though his own lack of verbal coherence at times may have those who will watch with the benefit of subtitles choose that option on Blu-ray.  Even if you understand the mumbling dialogue, multiple viewings may be required in order to sort out the plot, so your mileage may vary -- this is my review based on the half-futile first viewing.

Though not without admirable qualities, Inherent Vice will likely miss mainstream audiences altogether, and begin to even divide P.T. Anderson's supporters, some who will no doubt champion this as another great masterwork, perhaps because it will likely be the auteur's most disregarded in the end.  As for me, while I am willing to allow for the occasional misfire from a director with as much upside as Anderson, it is the kind of movie that makes me nervous for his next cinematic venture, knowing that another rambling and barely coherent opus could relegate the director on the forefront of cinematic renaissance to just another art-house author whose movies only speak to a small but fervent following of fans.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo