Movie Review: “Inherent Vice”

Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterson, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro
Paul Thomas Anderson

After years of toying with my patience (first with “There Will Be Blood,” and more recently with “The Master,” both of which feature such great acting that it papered over their respective cracks), Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice (or hidden defect) of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the film, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the big joke of “Inherent Vice,” it’s not a very funny one.

Set in the seedy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator who receives a visit one night from his free-spirited ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), requesting help with a personal matter. She needs Doc to track down her new boyfriend, hotshot real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), after learning that his duplicitous wife plans to have him committed and steal his fortune, only for Shasta to go missing herself. While investigating the pair’s disappearance, Doc takes on some additional cases – including a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang – that are curiously all connected in some way. Doc doesn’t exactly know why or how, but one thing seems certain: he’s not going to get any assistance from hippie-hating LAPD detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with whom he has a strange love-hate relationship.

“Inherent Vice” feels complicated for the sake of being complicated, eventually becoming so mired in all the twists and pointless subplots that it doesn’t even know what it’s about anymore. One mystery leads to another, which leads to another and so forth, and the kicker is that none of these cases are ever really solved. It’s absolutely maddening to watch unfold, to the point that you’ll wish you had a little of whatever Doc was smoking in the hope that it would at least make things a bit more entertaining. Phoenix nearly holds the whole thing together with his amusingly daffy performance, but he’s the only bright spot in the entire movie. Brolin earns a few laughs as the straight-edged cop, and Hong Chau livens things up as the sprite-like massage-parlor girl who feeds Doc intel, but the rest of the cast (which itself is surprisingly weak considering the quality of talent Anderson usually attracts) is wasted in forgettable roles that aren’t so much characters as walking cartoons with silly motivations and even sillier names.

Nothing about this film makes a lick of sense. For instance, why is it narrated by a female character (Doc’s friend, Sortilège, played by Joanna Newsom) whom we barely meet? And how is she privy to all of this information? Worse than the gaps in logic, however, is the movie’s punishingly long 148-minute runtime, which is filled with dense, drawn-out conversations that go nowhere except lead to another similarly long-winded exchange. There are flashes of comic brilliance sprinkled throughout (mostly reactions from Phoenix’s character), but it’s never quite the madcap comedy that its trailer promised. Anderson shouldn’t have to work this hard for a laugh when everything about the world Pynchon has created is dripping in surreal nuttiness, but therein lies the problem with “Inherent Vice”: the humor gets lost in the tediousness of the story.