A Complex Crime Story, with a lot of in’s, a lot of out’s, a lot of what have you’s.
In Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello a bumbling stoner/private detective who stumbles upon a complex case of attempted murder, sex, scandal, extortion, political corruption and drugs. The information is brought to him by his ex-old lady, Shasta played by Katherine Waterson, who later turns up missing. Also who in my opinion looks like a younger, hotter Melissa Leo. The story is based on a complex crime drama by author Thomas Pynchon. There are tons of characters, small plot lines and deep criminal under workings, yet we never seems to get deeper than the shallow level our baked protagonist and narrator are able to take us. This is director Paul Thomas Anderson working another complex ensemble cast, much like in Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999).
I am a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, have been since Hard Eight (1996). I think his films are better on repeat viewing. Yet I must admit Boogie Nights was entertaining on first viewing, Magnolia was great after the second and third viewing, others require a lot of patience. I was less than impressed with The Master (2012), acting was great, the story just seemed to wander aimlessly. Strong characters lacking direction. His characters all have so many quirks and bit part dialogue rants that just can’t be appreciated on first viewing. Re-watch the pool party scene with John C. Riley and Mark Wahlberg from Boogie Nights. Or any of the late great Philip Seymore Hoffman and Julianne More in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson just knows how to get amazing performances out of actors.
All that being said Inherent Vice is a bit of a disappointment. I felt he wanted to do what the Cohen Brothers did with The Big Lebowski (1998), a stoner in over his head on a complex crime plot. Neo-noir story line, with sexy sirens, Nazis instead of Nihilists and a wise beyond the plot narrator. There are great supporting character performances, Josh Brolin as a hard edged police detective Big Foot is amazing. The subtlety of his comedic performance in the Japanese pancake house scene is hilarious. There is also a bit part with the great Martin Short. Picture a coked out Austin Powers, but I won’t spoil it. Benicio Del Toro plays Doc’s lawer, who specializes in maritime law. I am reminded of his Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Owen Wilson’s role in this film seems way under used and almost unnecessary; Reece Witherspoon also, very under used. There are all these great actors, yet not a lot is delivered with them. I assume there is a 5 hour directors cut on Blu-Ray to look forward to.
All in all this film struggles to find its tone. It goes back and forth between bumbling comic irreverence to wanting to sober up and offer up a message. There is a not so subtle police brutality political subtext to this film. Doc is repeatedly knocked down, and beaten by Bigfoot and other LAPD. Bigfoot is a repressed angry narcissistic strait laced officer with a bit of a homo-erotic oral fixation. As if to explain the behavior of most violent police activity. I worry that the message kept the director preoccupied from doing what usually makes his films great. Too busy holding up a mirror to today’s political and social unrest as a means of comparison with the late 60’s. As in all of his movies the jury is still out until I have had a chance to re-watch it. But if you don’t have the patience you might want to skip this one. This is more The Master than it is Boogie Nights.
I didn’t get it. Maybe the viewer needs to be drunk. Or high? I don’t know. I just didn’t get it.
The first problem was the mumbling. I understand the need to be authentic. (I think) the movie is trying to portray the brilliance of a constantly-drugged set of characters who go on to solve crimes ala Scooby Doo or Matlock. But it needed subtitles. Again, maybe the intent is not to watch it with a clear head. The mumbling was beyond frustrating.
The acting, as expected, was great. That’s what you get when you throw Joaquin Phoenix, Martin Short, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin into a film. Though I was fairly bored with most of the movie (see mumbling rant above), seeing these actors together on the screen was a treat. I loved seeing Martin Short even if for a few minutes. Josh Brolin was always entertaining with a dash of distributing. There were some moments of little chuckles from the audience.
Bottom line … there was about 20 minutes of the movie I enjoyed with the rest of it was just plain boring. I have a feeling this movie sounded a lot better on paper and over drinks than it came across on the screen. Hard pass.