Review – Inherent Vice

There’s a moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s chaotically brilliant latest when Joaquin Phoenix’s perennially baked private detective asks someone what inherent vice is, only to be told “I don’t know”.

Like much of Anderson's work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe

Like much of Anderson’s work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe

It’s a telling exchange in a film that’s stuffed with plot threads, but is enjoying itself way too much to want to stitch them together into a traditional narrative. As whacked out as Inherent Vice is, though, it is filmmaking on a higher plane of existence that reinforces PTA’s credentials as one of cinema’s most distinctive and timeless auteurs.

The 70s are generally regarded as a paranoid come down from the flower-powered counterculturalism of the previous decade, but it’s also the same decade that produced the New American Cinema and Inherent Vice is a wistful and melancholic throwback to such classic ’70s revisionist detective films as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown.

Ouija believe it: 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) with Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) in Inherent Vice

Ouija believe it: ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) with Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) and Shasta (Katherine Waterston) in Inherent Vice

This mood is mirrored by the film’s evocative soundtrack, that includes Harvest and (appropriately enough) Journey Through The Past by Neil Young, whose mutton chops and wide-brimmed hat provided the visual way into the California dreamin’ character of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello for Phoenix.

Doc is hired by ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to look into the disappearance of her wealthy real estate lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). As Doc disappears down the rabbit hole, his increasingly mind-altering investigation takes in black activists, nazi bikers, double agents, dodgy dentists, a weird cult (shades of his 2012 film The Master) and something called the Golden Fang. Meanwhile, hippie-hating LAPD Detective Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) makes his presence known from time-to-time and proves to be a curious love/hate companion to the shambling Doc.

What's up Doc: Private detective 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice

What’s up Doc: Private detective ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Inherent Vice

Anderson’s free-spirited adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel fits perfectly with the tone and mood of a film that, whilst not as goofy as the misleading trailer would have you believe, nevertheless has plenty of laughs courtesy of Phoenix’s irresistible central performance. His hilariously over-the-top reaction to a picture of a baby is priceless, while his irreverent scribbles during interviews and exchanges with Brolin’s square-jawed square are among the film’s many highlights.

Me and my shadow: 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Detective 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in Inherent Vice

Me and my shadow: ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in Inherent Vice

Anderson and Phoenix counteract this with moments of introspection, not least of which when he periodically looks out the window of his ramshackle beach house with a nostalgic yearning for a time that is already fading into memory; or chats with the wise Sortilège (Joanna Newsom); a character whom you suspect is possibly a figment of Doc’s febrile imagination bearing in mind her sudden appearances and disappearances and the fact nobody else interacts with her.

Phoenix is given plenty to work opposite a stellar cast, all of whom are able to put flesh on the bones of their characters thanks to PTA’s Oscar-nominated screenplay. Martin Short leaves you wanting more from his all-too-brief cameo as deranged tooth doctor Rudy Blatnoyd, while the excellent Waterston floats along as flower child femme fatale Shasta; the love of Doc’s life who may or may not be the best thing for him.

Inherent Vice does da Vinci's The Last Supper

Inherent Vice does da Vinci’s The Last Supper

Individual frames also lodge themselves in the mind; not least of which a throwaway moment around a busy dining table involving Owen Wilson’s missing-believed-dead Coy that looks like it’s lifted straight from da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Like much of Anderson’s work, Inherent Vice will undoubtedly reward repeated viewings and, though not his finest picture, it remains an experience to inhale and imbibe.

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29 comments

  1. le0pard13 · March 26, 2015

    Still have to see this. Heard its soundtrack is a 70s music fest. Thanks for the heads up, Mark.

    • Three Rows Back · March 26, 2015

      You’re always welcome my friend. The soundtrack is particularly fine and Johnny Greenwood’d compositions are equally great.

  2. Tom · March 26, 2015

    OH man, what a ridiculous number this one was, eh?!! I so regret not giving it another look in the cinema but if I can be totally honest I’m at a point now with Anderson (though some of his films I’ve initially been taken aback by, re: Magnolia; There Will be Blood) that I can probably just buy this outright and not feel bad about it at all. I love Joaquin in this, but Brolin may have been better.

    • Three Rows Back · March 26, 2015

      I’m really looking forward to seeing this again. There was a point when I wasn’t too big a fan of Phoenix, but he’s evolved into a brilliant actor willign to take chances. He and PTA are almost the perfect match between visionary director and actor. I love PTA’s work; he can’t do much wrong in my book. Thanks as always for the feedback Tom.

  3. Mark Walker · March 27, 2015

    Fabulous stuff mate. I’m happy to hear you being positive on this one. Too many people tore it a new arsehole and it, simply, didn’t deserve it. Great film that’s been misjudged far too soon.

    • Three Rows Back · March 27, 2015

      I think those people don’t understand what PTA is doing here. It’s a film that will only get better in time in my view. I loved it. Glad we’re in lock step mate; cheers for the kind words.

      • Mark Walker · March 27, 2015

        Stu and I conversed on this too and we both reckoned that this will stand the test of time and get the appreciation it deserves at a later date. I also feel the same with The Master. That’s another misjudged film and a near masterpiece in my eyes.

      • Three Rows Back · March 27, 2015

        Yep, quite agree Mark.

  4. ckckred · March 27, 2015

    Nice review. I too loved Inherent Vice, though I did find it difficult to grasp the plot (so much so that I haven’t even managed to written a review yet). This is undoubtedly a movie that will improve after multiple viewings and I can’t wait to purchase this on blu-ray.

    • Three Rows Back · March 27, 2015

      I love films that need to let digest with the viewer over time and this, like much of David Lynch’s work, does just that. I think it will be regarded as a cult classic in a few years. Cheers man.

  5. Stu · March 27, 2015

    I really regret only seeing this once at the cinema too (as per Tom’s comment above). Cracking film, it just looked fantastic and always great to dip into PTA’s LA.

    • Three Rows Back · March 27, 2015

      Nobody does if better than PTA. It only played for a single screening where I live, so it will have to be small screen viewings from now on.

  6. Dan O. · March 27, 2015

    A very crazy movie, but also, one that I always seemed to have a fun time with. Nice review.

  7. ruth · March 27, 2015

    The trailer made me laugh so I can’t wait to see this one when it’s out on iTunes! I want to know what the heck Phoenix’s character’s looking at in that photo that made him react like that, ahah.

    • Three Rows Back · April 8, 2015

      Well, the film isn’s as laugh old loud as the trailler suggests. I’m saying nothing about the photo!

      • ruth · April 8, 2015

        Ahah, I don’t want you to. No spoilers! I’d like to find that out for myself 😀

      • Three Rows Back · April 8, 2015

        I try never to spoil!

  8. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · March 30, 2015

    Fantastic write up mate. I’ve got some catching up to do with PTA’s work but I really want to check this out. Apparently it’s nothing like the trailer made it out to be but it looks an intriguing little film.

    • Three Rows Back · April 8, 2015

      Cheers Chris. The trailer sells it as a straight farcical comedy, sort of low rent Coen brothers. It’s much more than that, believe me.

  9. Jordan Dodd · March 30, 2015

    Great write up man. I’m with you 100%, I loved this movie and LOVED LOVED LOVED the OST! I actually just did a post about the OST alone, I loved it so much I went and bought the thing. Soooo worth it!!.

    I like that you threw Chinatown in there. It is kinda like Chinatown on magic mushrooms haha 😛

    • Three Rows Back · April 8, 2015

      Appreciate that Jordan. Very glad you enjoyed this as much as I did! “Chinatown on magic mushrooms” – like it!

  10. sweet Cheke · March 31, 2015

    I honestly thought that there would never be a pta film that I didn’t love but I finally met it when I saw this film. Perhaps Phillip’s passing put him in a bad state of mind but this film had the elements of something that never seemed to reach it’s potential. Also I found Josh Brolin terrible, he was just Josh Brolin and in my opinion did an insanely crap job in this film, to the point where I consider it a major part of the films failing. Also the humor was very sombre and the film was more than a little depressing.

    • Three Rows Back · April 8, 2015

      Ah, well each to their own! Respect your opinion; this is one of those movies that splits people down the middle. Personally, I thought Brolin was good value and the film walked the fine line between melancholy and humour.

      • Jordan Dodd · April 11, 2015

        I thought Brolin and Phoenix’s chemistry was by far one of the best things in the movie i thought. The scene where Bigfoot drives, eating his chocolate banana while Doc just kinda watches, eyes saying WTF is such a classic scene. I think humour in this is downright hilarious!! Melancholy I guess, but that is just cos the film is based in that depressed period where the counter culture ended. Martin Short’s dentist was an absolute crack up too! 🙂

        I’d love to hear what you think of my write up of this mate

  11. Pingback: Everybody’s Chattin’ + MARCH Viewing Recap |
  12. vinnieh · April 5, 2015

    Amazing review, will certainly have to check this flick out.

  13. Jordan Dodd · April 11, 2015

    Great review mate. With you on most of your points. Not his best but damn its good. Did you detect a gonzo feeling throughout this? If I hadn’t read the book I’d swear this was written by Hunter S!!

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