Review: “Inherent Vice”

Katherine Waterston and Joaquin Phoenix star in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.One wonders if there was something more than tobacco in the cigarettes used to burn the cue marks into the celluloid prints that filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson specially requested for the release of “Inherent Vice,” as it often seems that marijuana is part of the movie’s physical DNA. Protagonist Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a questionably-licensed private investigator, takes joint hits so liberally throughout the picture that the audience might just come away with a contact high themselves. At least, it would seem that fostering such an illusion is Anderson’s goal, as “Inherent Vice” embodies Doc’s grass-altered perspective to such a degree that one can never be sure if any of the narrative events are actually happening, much less if they are happening in the way that they are depicted as happening. The film is just a wave that you ride, man.

Those who were frustrated by the prioritization of mood and theme over narrative in Anderson and Phoenix’s last collaboration, 2012’s “The Master,” are not likely to jive with the often flat-out developmentally incomprehensible “Inherent Vice.” That being said, the earlier film’s emotional heaviness has been replaced by a wickedly comic, freewheeling tone to match its late-’60s/early-’70s, stoner-populated Los Angeles setting. And really, half the fun of “Inherent Vice” lies in its reefer-laced field of vision, from the random appearance of soldiers in formation in the background of an early scene, to Police Lieutenant Bigfoot Bjornsen’s (Josh Brolin’s) exaggerated oral fixation with frozen bananas, to sultry leading lady Katherine Waterston’s exceedingly casual reentry into the picture after being presumed missing for most of its duration. There is something electrifying about not knowing what absurdity next awaits, like a moment in which Bigfoot begins to eat marijuana by the handful.

Of course, the loosey-goosey nature of the story does not impinge upon the artistic refinement of its presentation. Anderson has made some key plot alterations to the source novel by Thomas Pynchon, but he borrows large chunks of the writer’s distinctive, sagaciously doltish dialogue. Few screenplays this year have done a better job of conveying the spirit of a time and place. Anderson further fosters this sense of temporality with his aesthetic choices as a director. Impeccably shot on a grainy film stock with oversaturated hues, “Inherent Vice” would come across as an homage to the late ’60s and early ’70s even without the funky hairstyles and garish apparel. Johnny Greenwood’s score (his third collaboration with Anderson) and relatively recent Neil Young tracks perfectly blend with period-appropriate musical choices. Miraculously, the film’s way of combining concerted artistry with conscious schlock never comes across as phony or cloyingly postmodern; it offers a singular, even melodic vision.

It helps that Anderson found a cast who were able to uniformly play into his concept for the film, hardly an easy task given the psychedelic nature of the material. Phoenix so perfectly realizes Doc, at once a stoned creature and a vulnerable man, that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing him (especially Robert Downey Jr., who was originally attached to the project). Brolin is a real hoot, laying it on thick for the camera (just wait until he utters a certain line about “respect”). Newcomer Waterston, daughter of Sam, is transfixing in her elusive role. Michael Kenneth Williams shows up to chew the scenery in a way that only he can, playing a black militia group leader who just so happens to be open to working with white supremacists. Benicio del Toro lectures Doc and Bigfoot on maritime law (what!?). Young TV actress Sasha Pieterse manages to make her character named Japonica Fenway behave exactly like a character named Japonica Fenway would. Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, and Martin Short all show up in cameo roles, each more head-scratchingly good than the last.

This all goes to say, “Inherent Vice” coheres by being precisely, masterfully incoherent. It is a testament to the film’s construction and performances that, even at two-and-a-half hours long and filled to the brim with ludicrous and seemingly aimless developments, it remains compulsively watchable from the first frame to the last. As a viewer, I relished in all of its moments—big and small—and I never wanted it to end.