Doc (Joaquín Phoenix) is a private investigator in LA of the 1970s. A fan of weed and not quite over the breakup with the love of his life, Doc is sent into a complicated and vice filled world when his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) goes missing. Her new lover, his wife, her lover and countless others are seemingly embroiled in the case, and Doc’s mortal enemy – Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen – is also on the case, making things even more complicated, if such a thing could be possible.
Based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, the first of his to be adapted for the big screen, Inherent Vice was never going to be a straightforward tale. Feeling like a mix between The Big Lebowski, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and any Noir film you care to mention, inherent vice twists and turns throughout its 148 minute running time, leaving the audience to hang on and hope that all becomes clear.
Joaquin Phoenix is at the top of his game as the Lebowski-esque Doc. All wild hair and big eyes, Phoenix captures the look and feel of a man who finds himself in a labyrinthine world where almost nothing makes sense, but everything is connected. Josh Brolin obviously has the time of his life playing the hippy-hating cop and Katherine Waterston embodies the ethereal and mysterious Shasta Fay. The rest of the cast includes Owen Wilson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and Reese Witherspoon. All have relatively small roles, and it could be argued that they often complicate the film rather than clarify it. As well as this, due to some mimbling performances, and loud music choices, there are entire sequences where the audience may strain to hear the dialogue.
The story is wildly complicated and tangled; those who found The Big Lebowski hard to follow may as well give up now, but the dialogue is strong, as is Joanna Newsom’s romantic and lyrical voiceover; which goes some way to explaining matters as they go along, and adds to the Noiresque feel of the film. The film often feels like scenes or vignettes, tied together by the presence of Phoenix, that somehow come together to tell a complete story. Like a collection of short stories with a common theme, Inherent Vice doesn’t always makes itself clear, and nor is it the comedy it is feted to be.
As director, Paul Thomas Anderson has created a strange, over the top and hyper real world in Inherent Vice, and coaxed wonderful performances from his actors, notably Joaquin Phoenix as Doc. A clearer throughline may have done wonders for the film, however, as instead of being a slightly muddled film that comes together in the end, Inherent Vice is a film with so many players and so many subplots that it is often difficult to see how anything is going to be resolved at all. That said, this is a journey worth going on, even if then end is unclear. Robert Elswit’s cinematography is muted and beautiful, and goes much of the way to creating the dulled feel of the film.
In all, Inherent Vice is a film that needs pondering, and perhaps, repeat viewings. Not an instant classic like The Big Lebowski – and nowhere near as funny – Inherent Vice is nonetheless, a fun ride to go on. Phoenix has rarely been better, as the wide-eyed and wonderful Doc, and the rest of the cast back him up admirably. Just don’t expect all your questions to be answered – they probably won’t be – as director Anderson has obviously stuck with the feel of Pynchon’s original work, and left the threads tangled and the story muddled. The trouble is, this doesn’t always work to the film’s benefit.