If you are a PTA fan, you know the guy’s style is extremely unique. Any time I watch one of his films, my immediate reaction is to watch it again, both out of enjoyment and to better understand the themes. In the case of Inherent Vice, the need to rewatch a movie of his was never so strong.
Larry Sportello – better known as Doc – is a pot head hippie private eye based in Gordita Beach in southern California. He is approached by ex-lover Shasta Fay Hempworth, who believes her current boyfriend, married land developer Mickey Wolfmann, is the target of an abduction attempt by his wife and her lover. In helping Shasta, Doc not only goes on a search for Wolfmann, but others who go missing, including Shasta, and one who is assumed to be murdered. Along the way, Doc gets involved with a crazy cast of characters and a wide array of issues from politics, cults, prostitution, the drug trade and dentistry, much of it surrounding the mysterious “Golden Fang”. Along for most of the ride is LAPD detective Christian Bjornsen – Bigfoot to most who know him – who is straight-laced on the outside, but who has a dark underside, which is supported by a hefty therapy bill.
While Anderson’s script does deserve its fair share of credit for the film’s absurd humor, what really makes Inherent Vice so funny is the acting, especially that of Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin. Phoenix’s portrayal of our perpetually stoned protagonist Doc is universally spot-on; with a wonderfully out-of-it expression frozen on his face, Doc stumbles through the movie dazed and confused in a marijuana-induced haze. The smallest details, such as Doc aggressively slapping himself in the face mid-conversation to focus, are what make his performance so consistently enjoyable. Brolin, meanwhile, steals the show as hippie-hating cop Christian “Bigfoot” Björnsen, who both antagonizes and collaborates with Doc to unravel the film’s tangled web of mysteries. Bigfooot’s many idiosyncrasies, including the inadvertently suggestive way he eats frozen bananas and his not-quite-mastery of Japanese, make him by far one of the funniest and most colorful characters of the film, and Josh Brolin plays him with just the right mix of hotheadedness and cluelessness.
These are the psychic forces which are acting upon director P. T. Anderson as he labors to elicit from his audience a response possibly similar to that experienced by someone under the influence of an illicit substance, as though his cinematic creation—his oddly compelling visuals and offbeat, syncopated narrative—are themselves hallucinogenic, narcotic agents. He wants to lull us into a sympathetic state of deep, profound uncertainty where we then might hopefully, possibly experience something not unlike a mind blowing revelation about the true nature of reality. That’s the grand, nearly impossible mission of this film, and in an often impressive and entertaining way it succeeds. There are so many moments in this wonderful film which exist as entirely abstract, ineffable questions brushing up against the dark mysteries lying at the weird, wild heart of our ever bewildering reality. Inherent Vice is a real head trip, man.
Despite Inherent Vice’s one-of-a-kind style and atmosphere, it’s still ultimately not going to work for a whole lot of people. It’s virtually impossible to follow the plot the first time around, and its many subplots and manic storytelling style will surely frustrate and alienate many viewers. For those that can tolerate its eccentricities however, it’s a rambling drug-fueled odyssey worth taking and yet another impressive showcase of Paul Thomas Anderson’s incredible talent and versatility as a filmmaker. Yes, it confused me a lot. It had me so confused that I was invested throughout the whole movie. I think I have a small understanding what happened, but like to continue thinking about it as I really need to see it a couple more times.
Inherent Vice gets an 8.4/10.
PS. I may write my second big analysis about this movie. I bought the book, and will go for a second viewing soon, so I’m going to see if I can crack this thing. Give me some time and hopefully I can answer the many questions you guys will get after viewing this movie.