Inherent Vice (2014)
Starring- Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom, Jordan Christian Hearn, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Michael Kenneth Williams, Hong Chau, Sasha Pieterse, Keith Jardine, Peter McRobbie, Martin Donovan
Director- Paul Thomas Anderson
R- drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence
I think I always suspected that part of me wasn’t going to understand Inherent Vice — from its announcement as a strange, throwback genre film to its release as a loosely narrative, emotionally detached bit of anti-cinema. It’s an abnormally intelligent stoner movie, basically. I’m just glad that the parts that were to my liking were as strong as they were — if Inherent Vice sounds like it’s up your alley, it’s probably going to be one of your favorite films of 2014.
The year is 1970. Private investigator — and marijuana connoisseur — “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is the guy you go to when the police can’t be involved. One night, his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), shows up on his doorstep with a plea. She’s currently having an affair with a wealthy real Los Angeles estate developer. His wife and the man she’s having an affair with (it’s one big, happy family, apparently) have approached her with a plan to take over his estate, one that involves framing him for insanity and having him locked away in a private mental institution for the rest of his life.
Doc agrees to look into it. Shortly thereafter, Shasta disappears. While investigating two other cases, one involving a guy dodging an old debt and another involving a search for a former heroin addict’s supposedly (but probably not) dead husband, Doc works his way deeper into the politics of Los Angeles and slowly puts together a complicated puzzle involving the Aryan Brotherhood, the counterculture movement, the jazz scene, the FBI, a mysterious ship called The Golden Fang, and his old nemesis — LAPD detective and cheerful civil rights violator “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
It’s undeniably a dense film, and it can be a touch difficult to follow at times. Most movie mysteries proceed from a clear start to a clear endpoint and establish consistent causes and effects in between. Inherent Vice approaches this detective story in a way that’s probably closer to how it happens in real life — Doc gets information and clues sometimes all at once and sometimes sparsely, with no obvious connection at the outset and no clear storytelling rhyme or reason to when and where he picks them up. He simply stumbles across them, and late in the game, he finally gets that clue that ties everything together. Where most mysteries start small and get larger, Inherent Vice starts large and waits to give you the glue to stick it all together into something small and manageable. It’s probably more realistic but not necessarily as cinematic. I’m not really offering any of this as either criticism or praise, more so observation. It’s just something you need to know to figure out if it’s likely to be to your taste or not.
Me? If nothing else, I’m always going to go to bat for something this brazenly unusual. It’s film noir meets 70s kitsch meets stoner movie meets satire. And it’s shot in the close, immediate style of a modern indie film. I’m not sure there’s ever been anything quite like it — The Big Lebowski, maybe? It’s not really something you see to feel much of anything — it didn’t really do much for me on that level. You see it for its tone and its subversive intelligence.
There’s a strong comedic vein running through it, and that might be its strongest point — or at least, the point at which it most directly appeals to me. I like my comedy dry, and I like my comedy dark. Inherent Vice’s tone is defined almost exclusively in those terms. It’s dry like a desert wasteland — so laid back and subtle in its humor that a lot of people might miss it entirely. It develops its humor through characters and relationships and situations; it presents all of it matter-of-factly and only once, to my memory, breaks its straight face — and I think it’s needed, especially early on, when that moment occurs, to let everyone know that it doesn’t quite mean everything it’s doing.
For me, the crux of the comedy is in the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot. Together, they make for some of the best characters of the year. They’re foils for each other in a very obvious way — Doc being a stoned-out-of-his-gourd hippie private investigator and Bigfoot being the uber-masculine fist of the law — but it’s more than that. Their dynamic is difficult to describe, because unlike other such relationships, it can’t be called “love/hate.” You know that dumb Internet word “frenemy?” That’s what they are. They absolutely and without reservation despise one another but continue their visits and confrontations anyway, seemingly because they get some weird kick out of the mutual abuse — and because they share exactly one key trait in common, in that both of them are willing to paint outside the lines in their occasionally foolhardy pursuit of justice. Joaquin Phoenix is hilarious; Josh Brolin is hilarious; they make for the most hilariously hateful bromance in cinematic history.
The film itself is half incoherent, like any other stoner flick, and half weirdly intelligent. It both relishes the early 70s culture and critiques it pretty thoroughly — painting the counterculture movement itself as the secret product of corporate branding. It’s kind of like the way the punk movement began with an old guy who wanted to sell a new fashion line to the angry kids in the street and handpicked a band to be its cultural representatives. It appealed to real anger, but its emergence into popular culture was a calculated moneymaking enterprise.
Inherent Vice posits that not only is this also, to some extent, true of the emerging hippie culture, it’s true of society in general. It frames this as lightly absurdist satire — all of Doc’s “paranoid hippie bullshit,” as Bigfoot puts it, ultimately turns out to be true, and everything about life in general is part of this vast, far-reaching conspiracy. In that bit of nonsense, the film stumbles into a revelation that rings with a bit more truth — there might not be a conspiracy, but there is a system, part deliberate and part accidental, the natural end result of misunderstood human nature. Whether we like it or not, people and actions are connected, and sometimes farther than we think possible.
Anything I would say against Inherent Vice comes down to a matter of personal taste — I’ve never loved this sort of thing, anything that could be loosely described as an “anti-movie.” I understand the cultural purpose and the specific way they communicate; they just have no particular effect on me. It would be largely pointless to elaborate. Basically, if Inherent Vice sounds at all like something you’d enjoy, see it right this instant. If it doesn’t, as Doc might say, “Well, all right.”