After the New York Film Festival screening of Inherent Vice, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and a good deal of his cast took the stage for a brief Q&A. At one point, Anderson discussed Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and noted, “I saw The Big Sleep and it made me realize, I could not follow any of it and it didn’t matter because I just wanted to see what was gonna happen next.” Anderson does manage to achieve that to a degree in Inherent Vice, but it winds up making the film even more of a disappointment because what happens next is rarely satisfying.
Joaquin Phoenix leads as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private investigator and major pothead living in Gordita Beach, California in the 1970s. The film kicks off with a visit from his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She’s got some story about how she’s sleeping with the über wealthy real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and now his wife and her boyfriend are busy scheming to have Mickey committed to a mental institution. What does she want Doc to do about it? It’s unclear and that’s the problem with the large majority of the material throughout the film.
I’d actually like to bet all of the necessary details are buried in the scene somewhere, but there are so many of them and they’re coming at you at such a rapid-fire pace that it’s nearly impossible to decipher them before Shasta drives off and Doc sets out to crack the case. At that point, however, the lack of clarity isn’t such a big deal. If you’re a fan of Anderson and want to enjoy Inherent Vice as much as I did, this will probably be the point when you’re thinking that it’ll be okay; he’ll clear things up as the movie progresses. But sadly, that’s not the case. Doc goes on to come into contact with 26 other characters (according to a very handy pamphlet distributed after the screening), but only six make an impression.
As far as narrative structure goes, Owen Wilson and Jena Malone are the biggest winners because Coy and Hope Harlingen’s story comes with a beginning, middle and an end that boasts one particularly stunning shot. Sasha Pieterse and Martin Short are unforgettable as Japonica Fenway, one of Doc’s former clients, and the coked up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, not because of their effect on Doc’s mission, but rather because their sequence is so mesmerizingly bizarre and entertaining. Those qualities are what make Josh Brolin’s Lt. Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen work to a degree as well. He’s big, bold and brash, and it’s endlessly amusing watching Brolin tackle Bigfoot’s madcap behavior.
The rest of the supporting cast tends to fail for one of three reasons – they come and go too fast, they don’t have a discernable connection to Doc’s goal or they’re not outrageous enough to compete with the bigger personalities like Brolin and Short. For example, Benicio Del Toro’s Sauncho Smilax, Doc’s lawyer, is one of the dullest characters of the bunch and then Michael K. Williams’ Tariq Khalil makes the tiniest dent in the narrative by coincidently showing up at Doc’s office to ask him to track someone down who just so happens to be connected to Doc’s own endeavors.
Inherent Vice just caves under the weight of a bloated and extremely confusing narrative. There are some fantastic visuals, the costume and production design are stellar and the film’s score is downright brilliant, but it’s hard to appreciate it all because trying to solve the mystery requires so much effort. That opening scene with Doc and Shasta isn’t the only one with characters zinging new names and key information back and forth. Almost every single part of the film does it. There’s no moment to breathe and process the information so ultimately, the film hits a point where there’s such a backlog of detail to sort through that you just give up.
Simply put, I did not enjoy watching Inherent Vice. There are some fun scenes that are successful as standalone entities and a number of praiseworthy technical components, but it’s just too exhausting to keep up with the mystery and in the end, you’re not even rewarded for your effort. The whole way through, you’re waiting for this aha moment to pull it all together, but it never comes and then the movie ends.
I wish they had given us that pamphlet with all that character information prior to the screening because there are so many details in there that might have given me the broader understanding of the situation I needed to just let loose, play along and enjoy more of Anderson’s accomplishments. Perhaps Inherent Vice is a piece that will shine more and more through subsequent viewings, but having just endured the mind-boggling 148 minutes this morning, I doubt that’ll happen anytime soon.
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