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Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

Inherent Vice (2014)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Premise: Adapted from the novel by Thomas Pynchon. Set in the 1970s, a private detective (Joaquin Phoenix) combs through the drug-fueled counter culture of Los Angeles in search of his ex-girlfriend, who is tied to a recently disappared real estate mogul.

What Works: The films of Paul Thomas Anderson have shown a steady arc since 1997’s Boogie Nights. That film mixed a straightforward and familiar narrative structure with Anderson’s unique cinematic style but over the past eighteen years Anderson has gradually drifted from conventional Hollywood filmmaking. Instead, his subsequent films more closely resemble those of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby in that Anderson shows much more interest in his characters and their relationships and less interest in traditional narrative. With Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson returns to a more cogent form of storytelling. The movie is still very opaque but in the same way that Boogie Nights used the rags-to-riches-to-rags story formula of many show business tales, Inherent Vice is a noir detective mystery and it uses many of the conventions of the genre but applies them in some unexpected ways. Inherent Vice swaps the trench coats and fedoras of the 1930s with the drug saturated counterculture of 1970s Los Angeles and the hardnosed characters of Mickey Spillane’s detective fiction are replaced by hippies and other decadent characters. The film’s narrator is not entirely reliable and virtually all of the characters of Inherent Vice are constantly smoking, snorting, and ingesting mind altering substances, which adds to the mystery. Like most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films there are a lot of interesting things going on in Inherent Vice but one of the more notable qualities of this picture is the way it portrays the counter culture of the 1970s. Hollywood usually represents this movement with fond nostalgia. The counterculture of Inherent Vice is a dirty and vicious place where women are treated terribly, men are corrupt, and people of both genders lose themselves in a fog of drugs. However, the movie also depicts square society as equally corrupt, making the entire landscape of the film poisonous. The cast of Inherent Vice is led by Joaquin Phoenix as a private detective and Phoenix is constantly watchable. He’s able to make us believe that he is a habitual drug user but also functional enough to solve the case. The cast also features Josh Brolin as a Los Angels police detective who hounds Phoenix’s character and Brolin does the tough guy role well but the script allows him to be a bit more than that. Katherine Waterston plays the missing girlfriend and although she isn’t in the movie very much, she is vulnerable and Waterston delivers a grand monologue that is a great bit of acting.

What Doesn’t: The shortcomings of Inherent Vice are apparent when it is compared to the Coen Brother’s 1998 feature The Big Lebowski, to which Inherent Vice is remarkably similar. The Big Lebowski is also a noir mystery set in Los Angeles told from the point of view of a drug addled character and the narrative of both films zigzags and ultimately fizzles out. But Inherent Vice lacks the qualities that turned The Big Lebowski into a cult classic. First, it does not emotionally connect with the audience. The story doesn’t put anything concrete at stake and the characters of Inherent Vice aren’t especially memorable. Everyone is held at a distance and so it’s difficult to emotionally invest in the material. Second, Inherent Vice is too long. One of Anderson’s faults as a filmmaker is his trouble controlling the pace and Inherent Vice sags in some places. In others it plays like an inside joke that we’re not privy to. The film is dialogue heavy with a lot of scenes of characters sitting and talking. There is a lot going on underneath that material but because many scenes are so static it does not seem as the story is moving toward a finale.

Bottom Line: Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies tend to require multiple viewings and the passage of time in order to fully process them. Fans of his work will want to check this out and there is a lot in it that is fascinating but the movie does not quite tell its story as effectively as it could. 

Episode: #525 (January 18, 2014)