Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice came and went theatrically. Much like Spike Jonze’s Her, it seems an expensive arthouse film that didn’t connect with the public, though both were nominated for Screenplay Oscars. Vice made $8 million, while Anderson’s last film The Master only made twice as much. The filmmaker hasn’t ever scored a big hit (his biggest success was There Will Be Blood, which made $40 Million), and that’s a little sad because he’s one of the greatest filmmakers working today. This noted, Vice is destined to live on as a cult favorite. It’s too drugged out not to eventually find an audience, though its resemblances to films like The Big Lebowski and The Long Goodbye are mostly superficial.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, who works as a sort of private investigator, and the film begins with him being given a case by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepburn (Katherine Waterston). She’s been sleeping with a rich guy named Michael Wolfman (Eric Roberts), and she thinks Wolfman’s wife and the wife’s lover plan to take away all of the man’s money. The other big case he’s working on is that of Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson). Coy and his wife Hope (Jena Malone) are former heroin addicts and Coy went away to help both get clean, but in the interim he’s been declared dead and is now working as an informant for the Golden Fang, a mysterious organization that has its hands in everything. Both Coy and his wife want to reunite, but if he can’t get out of the clutches of the Golden Fang, it could kill them both.
There is so much plot to unpack in Vice, much of which is thrown away. Doc is framed for murder, but no one believes he did it so it never amounts to anything, while much of the Wolfman mystery seems to be about making Doc insecure about his relationship with Shasta, a relationship that is reignited because of their new interactions. Can he love her again after finding out about the men she’s been with and the person she either became or pretended to be? Or are the people telling him these things exaggerating, or is it in his head? All are options.
That’s the fun of the movie, and it’s something a lot of people are going to discover as the film eventually finds an audience. It’s a film even critics have watched multiple times to get a read on it and I’ve already had my fourth viewing. It rewards those rewatches, and it could be Anderson’s most fun film to revisit. Phoenix is on the next level as a performer and his work here is stunning, while the entire cast (which also includes Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Benicio Del Toro, and Reese Witherspoon among many more) is excellent. It’s easy to fall in to the film’s logic and wonder why all the food shown or mentioned in the film (outside of pancakes) appears to be made up. Or try and find the layers of truth as much of the film is as drugged out as Doc, or how all the threads come together – something hard to get a hold on during one’s first pass into the world. Though the film barely made a box office impression it’s the sort of film that twenty years from now could be universally hailed as a classic, a masterpiece. It’s then when some of us will note that we felt that way from the start.
Warner Brothers presents the film on Blu-ray in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, while the set comes with a DVD and digital copy. The transfer is immaculate and Robert Elswit’s cinematography is stunning. This is a film to be studied, and it looks amazing on Blu, while the soundtrack is well presented (and it’s worth noting that Anderson is a great master of the needle drop). The only extra is four collections of footage, much of it deleted from the film, edited together into trailer-like presentations. They can be viewed in play all (11 min.), or separately and are named “Los Paranoias” (2 min.), “Shasta Fay” (1 min.), “The Golden Fang” (2 min.) and “Everything in This Dream” (6 min.). Anderson used to be a big believer in special features, but over the last couple years he’s backed away from commentaries, or even much more than some deleted footage and footnotes. Perhaps in a few years he’ll change his mind, but for now, we’re not getting much out of him for supplements. Here it’s more of a tease, you wonder about how the scene with Michael K. Williams and Belladonna plays out, but you only get one shot.