“Of course if you’re a flag-waving fan of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson…you will be required to recognize it as a work of genius…” - Tom Long, The Detroit News
I’m a flag-waving fan of Mr. Anderson, and not only is Inherent Vice not a work of genius, it is the low point of his career thus far, and a near total disappointment.
Based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, Vice tells of the drug addled misadventures of gumshoe Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), and the troubles he finds himself in when an old flame seeks his help in the case of her missing new boyfriend.
The biggest problem with the film, among many, is that Anderson can’t overcome the weakness of the source material. The novel (and film) plays like a weak cocktail of The Big Lebowski and Hunter S. Thompson lite. To say the story is convoluted is an understatement. To call it puerile is being gracious. Any film that has as a main plot point a conversation revolving around the “pussy-eater special” at a massage parlor should cease any attempt at making big philosophical observations about the state of America, and instead embrace its sophomoric sense of humor. Inherent Vice, however, tries to have it both ways.
There are laughs to be had in Inherent Vice, to be sure. I’m no prude, and can enjoy cheap sexual humor as much as the next person, but do not expect me to take such a venture seriously when from that ground work you try to make meaningful social commentary. The debates the film tries to engage in are something very vague about the pointlessness of the drug war, how unquestioned patriotism can lead to fascistic tendencies, and the age-old admonishment to never judge books by their covers -- all framed by a story set in the hippy dippy year of 1970. These are all sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agree, but success or failure is in the execution. Unfortunately, the execution on display in Inherent Vice is unfocused and uneven, like you just paid good money to score killer weed but got shafted with some Boogity Brown instead. That’s how the Wiktionary appendix on cannabis slang would put it, anyway.
The tone of Inherent Vice is also troublesome. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, not serious enough to be poignant. As was the case for Anderson’s last two features (There Will Be Blood and The Master), Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood worked on the score, creating a darkly beautiful, evocative piece that is, frankly, in the wrong movie. At no time while the music was present did I feel anything close to what it suggested I should. The musical accompaniment for a sex scene towards the end of the film simmers with foreboding. The emotional arc of the scene goes nowhere, and makes no sense within the larger context of the story. That feeling of foreboding turns to confusion.
The movie’s structure is another problem. Anderson, who adapted the book for the screen himself, took a minor character from the novel (Doc’s friend Sortilége) and made her an exposition delivery device for the audience. Used almost exclusively as voiceover narration, this device creates clunky, awkward explanatory monologs that don't work. Over the course of the movie things get so confusing and unwieldy, by the third act they are forced to cram 10 pounds of plot into a 5 pound bag just to tie it all up. In the last 30 minutes, for example, a new character is introduced who is crucial to the plot, and that character’s connections to the mystery are explained by a convoluted speech that exists solely to alleviate confusion of the audience.
Inherent Vice is not a complete failure, though. Several key performances really do shine. Joaquin Phoenix brings subtle nuance to the lead character, often simply existing as Doc Sportello. Josh Brolin chews scenery in the best possible way as LAPD detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. I also quite enjoyed relative new comer Hong Chau’s mannered performance as Jade, an employee of the aforementioned massage parlor. But even with these bright spots, Benicio del Toro’s and Reese Witherspoon’s talents are completely squandered in parts so small that I was left wondering why stars of their caliber were hired in the first place.
In the end, the whole affair comes off as rather hollow. In Boogie Nights, one of his early masterworks, Anderson captures perfectly the aura of the 1970s. That film is equal parts hilarious, irreverent, poignant, and moving. In Inherent Vice, the same temporal setting is used as backdrop for some cheap laughs. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of his generation’s most important filmmakers, picking up the mantle of artists like the late Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick. Hopefully, he’ll be back on track with his next picture. Until then, I’ll just keep re-watching Boogie Nights.