Movie Review: Inherent Vice
by Jason Koenigsberg
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is one of the most unusual and unconventional pictures of 2014. It is getting mixed to mostly positive reviews and will probably divide audiences. Fortunately for me, I was not someone who left the theater scratching my head and disappointed. I was enthralled by the comedic dialogue and eccentric cinematography. Paul Thomas Anderson has always been one of my favorite voices in cinema for nearly twenty years now. His filmography includes some of the best movies of recent decades such as Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007).
Two years ago he released The Master, a film I admired for its bold cinematic look, unique score and phenomenal acting by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. All three would deliver outstanding performances, especially Phoenix, and would earn well-deserved Oscar nominations. However, The Master left me feeling cold and that it was overly pretentious because it had the great themes of organized religion and cults and did not really have anything to say about them. Inherent Vice may not be one of P.T. Anderson’s best films but it was a return to form proving that this important cinematic auteur still has a lot to say.
The story involves Private Investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, again) involved in a mystery trying to find his missing girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston). That sets in motion a convoluted plot that involves our main character getting mixed up in a kidnapping that then turns into a drug heist and everyone Sportello meets is a strange oddball character meanwhile he is constantly in a drug induced haze often smoking two joints at a time, no doubt with two different drugs in them, and drinking heavily.
Did I fully understand the complicated plot? No. The names were strange and confusing enough and I will probably pick up more plot details on repeat viewings. But that is not the point of Inherent Vice. This movie unravels a mystery that is secondary to the characters that we meet and the often-hilarious dialogue that is meant to be the most memorable factors the audience takes away. It reminded me of The Big Lebowski (1998), a film where the plot is a mystery involving a main character, also often drunk or high, trying to find a missing woman who gets mixed up with a very odd assortment of unsavory characters. Does anyone really remember or care about the plot of The Big Lebowski? Of course not, that movie flopped on its initial release and over time has earned its richly deserved reputation as a cult film and a modern comedy classic.
The two main highlights of Inherent Vice, like many other P.T. Anderson pictures, are the acting and the cinematography, regardless of what you think of the final product. Robert Elswit’s photography is beautiful throughout and really makes you feel as if you are in California during an earlier time or at the very least, you are watching a movie made in 1970. It is intentionally grainy and foggy at times. The mise en scene for certain shots are extremely unconventional where you will see characters talking to people right on the screen yet some characters faces remain hidden off screen. Like a cartoon where the children or animals are in perfect view but the adults heads are cut off, irregular shots indeed, but striking nonetheless. His big establishing shot of the police department is great and the final frame stuck with me as the credits rolled.
Joaquin Phoenix continues his hot streak of giving an outstanding performance each year in a unique and offbeat film. In 2012 is was in the aforementioned The Master, last year he gave an incredible piece of acting in Her and now this year he plays Doc Sportello like a funny, tragic outsider. Some of the facial expressions he gives are the funniest you will see in any film this year. He plays Sportello as a real misfit. The film takes place in Southern California in 1970, they constantly remind us how it is the end of the 60’s with references to Charles Manson and other characters frequently calling our main character a hippie as if it were an insult. Phoenix depicts Sportello as a cross between Johnny Depp with his loner, misfit persona and Jack Black with his comedic timing and facial expressions. Inherent Vice proves to us that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our best filmmakers working today and that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our boldest actors willing to take risks with unique and unconventional projects.
The supporting cast has a lot of big names and most of them deliver stellar work. Especially strong was Josh Brolin as a corrupt detective named Bigfoot. For him to stand out in this film and have as many hilarious moments as he does is a major accomplishment that deserves praise. Martin Short (yes, Three Amigos Martin Short) is great as a drug dealing/drug abusing dentist and it was nice to see Reese Witherspoon share a few scenes and reunite with Phoenix, her Walk the Line co-star as a sleazy District Attorney. The only weak performances were Owen Wilson as some guy who gets sucked into a spiritual cult, but is basically playing himself as if he were in a Wes Anderson (not P.T. Anderson) picture, and Benicio Del Toro slumming it delivering exposition to Joaquin Phoenix in random and forgettable scenes.
We shall see if time is as kind to Inherent Vice as it was to The Big Lebowski. In the meantime if you are looking for something artistic, unconventional and quirky, Inherent Vice is a superior and worthwhile option.