Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Inherent Vice is a mess of absurdities. It investigates the ludicrous conventions of the detective genre. It rambles through the self-indulgent, dying age of the hippies. It lurches along the vainglorious, narcissistic Los Angeles culture and cityscape. Anderson wants to package everything he can from his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon‘s novel, and while the result is occasionally interesting, the movie becomes enamored of its own cleverness in how it approaches its various topics with a sense of droll mockery, straddling the border of wackiness and respectability. We’re wound through a convoluted plot where the mystery may not be the point, but the points don’t matter when any emotional resonance is crushed beneath the weight of smug shenanigans.
Private Detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is lounging around in his beachside home in 1970 Los Angeles when he’s greeted by his old squeeze, Shasta (Katherine Waterson), who hires him to find her boyfriend, real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc also takes on seemingly unrelated cases such as former convict Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) being on the lookout for Aryan Brotherhood member Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson) and former drug addict Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) trying to find her husband Coy (Owen Wilson). Eventually, these cases begin to weave together through syndicates, past misdeeds, and Doc’s unusual relationship with intense cop Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
The plot requires you to be fully attentive as we follow three intersecting cases, and a bevy of characters providing a barrage of information. As long as you pay close attention, you’ll at the very least get the gist of the mystery, but Inherent Vice isn’t really worth the gist because the case is an example, not the story. This isn’t The Maltese Falcon where the detective puts the clues together and the audience gets a payoff. Anderson is pursuing the genre at a different angle, one where everyone is forthcoming and the puzzle looks almost as jumbled when it’s assembled as it does when it was in pieces.
Like any good spoof, Inherent Vice is toying with conventions, but it has loftier aspirations than something like Top Secret! (one of the film’s influences). Anderson commendably goes beyond genre to explore setting, culture, and plenty of other oddities, but unfortunately the artful absurdity combined with the dense plot drain the movie of any vibrancy outside of the performances and Robert Elswit’s cinematography. There’s nothing anarchic about Inherent Vice. It’s goofy and excitable, but in a very carefully calibrated fashion.
It’s a shame to see the movie so stiff about trying to be funny and so self-satisfied with every joke it tells. It’s as if the freedom and fun of Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia were smothered and replaced with a detached air that was achingly self-aware. When Doc discovers a “syndicate of dentists”, it’s a droll, safe joke that’s made to look more exuberant just because our protagonist then does a line of coke. It’s all about keeping up appearances in Inherent Vice because there’s not much in the way of an emotional pulse.
Some will argue that this phoniness is the point and the picture is a critique of Los Angeles culture or the death of the free-love 60s or some other subtext that may well be in place, but I feel no need to dig it out because I have so little investment in the characters. Doc and Bigfoot are amusing, and there’s a hint of love between Doc and Shasta, but most of the love in Inherent Vice is reserved for itself or the source material. Watching Inherent Vice reminded me of Birdman in that both movies have great potential, but are so enamored of their own style and structure that they think those aspects are enough to win over an audience rather than create compelling stories and characters.
These two movies are interesting and occasionally clever at best, and in the case of Inherent Vice I admire Anderson’s willingness to break apart conventions even if he doesn’t reassemble them into something worthwhile. I like lines like “face ingredients” and when Anderson just sits with characters for a long, unbroken take as they provide a large amount of info to Doc. The film’s narrator, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), is a curious presence in how she factors into picture, but with her and like most of Inherent Vice, I never felt much reason to care for what Anderson was working towards.
Like all of Anderson’s movies, I feel that Inherent Vice is worth watching if only to see his unique direction, and it’s also a relief that the film is somewhat different in tone than his previous two works, There Will Be Blood and The Master, although it’s just as meandering as the latter. Nevertheless, all of the belabored plotlines and self-conscious comedy make Inherent Vice a tough case, and one that’s not necessarily worth solving.