Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson - 2 hrs. 28 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Inherent Vice" ended up being a nearly perfect situation for me. I'd read the book when it came out, and really enjoyed it (it was my first Thomas Pynchon novel, and I was lured in by the notion of his doing a detective story), but it's been just long enough since I've read the book that I'd forgotten a lot of the details, and thus could just kick back and enjoy the movie and still be surprised from time to time. So that way, I got to enjoy the story twice. For those who aren't in the same boat, I think this version of "Inherent Vice" is shaggy enough, clever enough, funny enough, and nicks tone from "The Big Lebowski" (and "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, for that matter) enough that it's going to be a good time for a lot of people.
In 1970, in a beach community in Los Angeles, there lives a detective named Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). He's constantly referred to as either "doper" or "hippie," both of which are dead on. An old flame, Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), with a new look shows up at his pad in the middle of the night, asking for help and playing off his unresolved feelings for her. The entire problem rests on locating her current fella, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who is a big-time developer, is being targeted for his fortune by his wife and her lover, and who have offered to cut Shasta in. But Mickey disappears, and Doc gets drawn further and further into a very complicated story.
Quickly, I felt that the movie did justice to the source material, and also was an entertaining movie on it's own. I doubt that enough people read "Inherent Vice" for there to be a need to adhere to the source material word-by-word, in order to avoid outraged throngs. The biggest things were that the film was cast very well, preserved (and in some cases, amplified) the shaggy tone of the novel, and that it worked as a film. That's what matters to me, so no need to get further into that.
I have read a number of detective/crime stories over the years; aside from comedy, it's my mindless entertainment genre of choice. The stock tropes of detective stories largely have been unchanged since Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and Dashiell Hammett put pen to paper; it's liquor, bullets, being wronged by beautiful women while trying to untangle a knot of cords. It works. But if you're going to make a story in that vein currently, you're competing against nearly 100 years solid of very, very good work, all taking up residency on the bookshelf next to your attempts. So as much as I enjoy reading that kind of story, it's also fun to see someone try to twist the genre on it's ear. If you change the liquor to weed and psychedelics, you end up with something like "Inherent Vice." Or, like I mentioned before, "The Big Lebowski" or "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas." But you don't see attempts like this often, because the old formula still works just fine. And that's one of the reasons that "Inherent Vice" stands out.
The tone of this film, especially compared with other detective stories, is kind of light. Or a bit hazy. There are lots of awful things going on, but the only person who ever seems to get mad is Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), a police officer who seems to have a love/hate relationship with Doc. Everyone else is a little fuzzy, maybe a bit nostalgic or rueful, but as would befit the life of Doc, everything seems kind of tranquilized. And when things get hairy, they actually get funnier, because the notion that any of these people (other than a handful of squares) could manage to organize crime in any meaningful way is kind of funny.
For me, the main appeal of the film was the tone of it. The story itself makes sense, although it meanders at times, and it's interesting enough to keep one's attention. But the fact of the matter is that the world of "Inherent Vice" is populated with some real weirdos, Doc being one of the least of them. And seeing how they bump up against each other is like 75% of the fun. So a lot of the credit for that has to go to the casting, and the performances of the cast themselves. Joaquin Phoneix carries the movie, always looking like he's trying to figure something out that's just out of his grasp. His big foil, Bigfoot, played by Josh Brolin, starts off as an asshole, ends up offering a lot of understanding for how he got that way, and spends the meantime doing things that make you wonder if he's trolling people or acting in a way that he's not aware of. There are a lot of smaller roles that shine as well, especially Martin Short (in a purple velvet suit, even) and Owen Wilson. Then there are all the women, all of whom are attracted to Doc, even if they don't want to be. The biggie is Shasta, played by Katherine Waterston, who subtly pulls on and plays with Doc in ways that borderline on maliciousness, but her behavior and the on-screen relationship with Phoenix feels very real, and at times gives the scenes a voyeuristic uncomfortableness.
I'm not going to pretend that "Inherent Vice" is one of the greatest detective stories ever committed to film, but it's a highly entertaining one, and one that's different from most. It has a distinctive feel, and the nearly two and a half hour runtime flies by. There are some great performances here, and the story is solid enough to lay a good foundation for the hazy tone that's the real draw here. And when you see the scene with Bigfoot eating a frozen banana, I defy you to tell me "Inherent Vice" isn't a fun movie.
4 / 5 - Theatre