'Inherent Vice' is Foggy, Fun, and Befuddling

Inherent Vice Del Toro Phoenix

My girlfriend and I saw Inherent Vice on the first night of its wide release. We had a little over an hour to kill beforehand, so what better way to kill an hour than with a beer and a burger? Well, maybe that wasn’t the best idea. Between the heavy food, two pints of strong brew, and a warm theater, I was far sleepier that I had hoped to be. Make it be known I did not fall asleep. I refuse to have a repeat of my experience watching There Will Be Blood, where I awoke to Daniel Day-Lewis screaming about milkshakes.

I did power through Inherent Vice, although it would have helped to partake in a couple of joints rather than a couple of beers. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is hazy. The pace is offbeat. The humor is subtle. I feel like I need to watch it a dozen additional times before I can properly judge it. But here we are, with my initial, sleepy impression.

Inherent Vice follows baked private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he smokes his way into the seedy world of southern California real estate. Doc’s former lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston) needs his help to prevent her current beau Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) from falling victim to a plot to stick him in the loony bin (can I still say loony bin?).

Doc meets weirdo after weirdo as he finds himself entangled in various different webs. There’s his attorney, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), who actually only practices marine law. There’s his police connection, Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) with hair so flat that you could land an airplane on top of his head. There’s his missing person in Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player separated from his wife. Everyone and everything in Doc’s life is bizarre, with the exception of his DA girlfriend Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon). Well, now that I think about it, maybe the fact that she’s even going out with Doc in the first place is bizarre.

There’s a question of how much of this is actually happening and how much of this is caused by Doc’s rampant drug use. This is unquestionably his perspective. I found myself just as confused as Doc at times, between the heroin dealers, mysterious boats, dentists, and hilariously on-the-nose brothels. Doc’s perspective gives Inherent Vice its offbeat tone and humor. If there’s another detective that Doc shares DNA with, it’s the Dude from The Big Lebowski. There’s obviously some key differences, Sportello is actually a detective where Lebowski is just doing his thing, man. But both films are drug fueled voyages into the perplexing and peculiar.

Phoenix works effectively with Anderson again, although not to the degree that he did playing the paint thinner chugging Freddie Quell in The Master. He plays well off of Brolin’s Bigfoot, who alternates playing the straight man with Sportello (Pancaku!). It’s a delight to see Del Toro in roles like this. After all, he was the man that brought Dr. Gonzo to life in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Katherine Waterston has a tough job, floating in and out of Inherent Vice. Shasta has an otherworldly presence about her, which made me question if she was even real early in the film. Waterston fits right in as the enigmatic hippie that makes the whole thing go round.

While I chuckled quite a bit during Inherent Vice, I don’t think I saw it with the right crowd. The people I saw it with didn’t quite know what to make of it. The whole thing just feels a little off, like it’s supposed to. A mix of noir and psychedelics is going to produce some fog. Inherent Vice is the kind of movie that might be better suited to a home viewing with some like minded individuals. Would a little herbal supplement hurt the experience? Of course not.

 

 

Spoilery Stuff

  • Great cameo by Martin Short as cocaine enthusiast/dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.
  • I also enjoyed the appearances by Michael K. Williams (Omar!), Timothy Simons (that idiot Jonah on Veep), and Maya Rudolph (who is married to Paul Thomas Anderson).
  • I enjoyed the psych ward doctor trying to explain away Puck Beaverton’s swastika tattoo, “No, that’s a hindu symbol of peace.”
  • Where would you rank this among Anderson’s work? It’s not quite up to that Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master standard, but I enjoyed it for what it was.
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