Inherent Vice

Flawed but nonetheless brilliant, engaging, and crazy fun.
Movie Review #978


Shasta: “I went on a boat ride. They told me I was precious cargo that couldn’t be insured because of inherent vice.”
Doc: “What’s that?”
Shasta: (laughs) “I don’t know.”

This is the kind of dialogue you get when you have Paul Thomas Anderson (referred from hereon as PTA) as your writer. Dialogue that flows along in a carefree manner; dialogue that feels nice to listen to. Dialogue that isn’t always on-topic or on-point, but makes the movie much more fun. Dialogue that we take for granted, and have to piece apart to realize its brilliance.

That’s most of what makes “Inherent Vice” so entertaining: the script. It’s how PTA handles his utterly confusing story that makes the movie ten times more fun than it could ever warrant under the lead of another director. We’re led to rock along with a movie, often without concern for its plot, and I guess that’s a good thing. “Inherent Vice” is a mad clusterf—k of stories. Thomas Pynchon obviously made a mess of the characters and their situations when he wrote the novel on which the film is based, back in 2009. But PTA makes style out of incoherence, and he certainly brings it to life.

“Inherent Vice” is 2015’s answer to “Pulp Fiction” (1994). It’s a drug-fueled saga with a retro feel, with all sorts of characters and situations to narrate. Granted, it’s lacking a lot of what that earlier film had in terms of quality, but it’s a wildly entertaining movie. The script, sound, and sight do a damn good job here of putting us right back in the 1970s. The soundtrack does even better: for five minutes the movie gives a quiet, false start, and then opens with a bang to “Vitamin C” by CAN. Listen out, as well, for Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleur”, perhaps the best song heard in this film. (Riperton, by the way, is Maya Rudolph’s mother, Rudolph being a supporting actress in “Inherent Vice” as well as PTA’s girlfriend of over a decade.)

“Inherent Vice” is locked and loaded with great performances. At the heart of it all is Joaquin Phoenix, as Doc, a hippie who smokes marijuana like it’s going out of style and sports a PI license, which, as we might expect, no one takes seriously. Josh Brolin plays a detective who works alongside Doc, but can’t stand him. Katherine Waterston, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, and Owen Wilson make notable appearances here, too, but the film earns its most points from Joanna Newsom’s narration. Her performance only really amounts to a narration though. She also appears in the film, but her character seems filler. I might also mention that it’s quite difficult trying to tell her apart from Katherine Waterston. The one true disappointment in the cast, however, is Hong Chau. I don’t know what I can’t stand more about her performance as a prostitute in this film: her falsetto voice, or her sexually explicit dialogue. Both were intended as comedy, but in combination, they become obnoxious and difficult to watch.

At 2 hours, 28 minutes, “Inherent Vice” does feel long. However, its last thirty minutes account for the most incredible finale in any PTA film. The movie may be flawed, but it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s like Woodstock, set in the post-Woodstock era. It’s hippies, it’s extensive scenes of sex and nudity, it’s all sorts of drugs, it’s music. I’d say it’s inherent vice, but seeing how PTA’s other films have improved over time, it’s just the opposite.