Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Inherent Vice is its own bit of cinema. Of course, I could easily say that about all of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (The Master, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, etc.). They are all their own bit of cinema. His style is distinct, and for those who subscribe to the theory, he is an auteur. What this means is simple: some people love and cherish his work, while others may be alienated by the unfamiliar and un-mainstream approach and delivery of a filmmaker like Anderson. For his seventh feature length film, Anderson does not change his stripes, and instead crafts yet another film sure to belong amongst his others as a cult classic. Of course cult merely means it’s not for everyone.
Joaquin Phoenix is not for everyone either, especially after his strange, and fake, foray into rapping with I’m Still Here, but he remains one of the best actors working today. Paired up with Anderson as his lead character, Doc Sportello, Phoenix yet again delivers a fantastic performance. A slouch, drugged-up private investigator in 1970 Los Angeles, Sportello sees his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) hire him to investigate the disappearance of her married boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann. Trying to decipher paranoia and reality, Sportello works with LAPD detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) to find the truth in this strange, unconventional comedy neo-noir.
What I’ve often found to be the formula for a successful “cult” film is density. No, I don’t mean fans of the film must be dense in order to like it and no, I don’t mean the film has such a deep, deep meaning that it is dense. All I mean is that when a film has layers such as Inherent Vice, the viewer doesn’t often get the opportunity to peel them all back upon first viewing. For this reason the film may come across as dense and partial to the whole. But once reflected upon, and more rewarding even, once seen for a second, third, fourth time, the film begins to reveal its entire self. Pay attention as I might, there were plenty of characters and interconnecting plot points to catch everything. I can’t wait to discover the film again.
But under the steady, guiding hand of Paul Thomas Anderson the film comes off not as a messterpiece, but a well-conceived and executed, entertaining film. Getting up from my seat at its conclusion, I was not swept away to a state of thought or of reflection on the meaning of the film. Instead I stood up satisfied with an entertaining experience. But it was not until I gave the film a more suitable reflection that I found a fuller appreciation. I never would have thought the comedy would mesh so well with the noir, nor the noir with the comedy.
The film is not nearly as ambitious as There Will Be Blood or Magnolia, but is fully on par with Anderson’s previous work. At times, the film is wacky, but that adds to the charm of spending time with these characters. We may not get fully loaded backstories for really any of the leads in the film, but what we do get is enough to join in on the laughs and lunacy of the plot. It never takes itself seriously, which is a good thing, because it would have been impossible to pull off a serious mystery under the circumstances of these characters. Anderson’s vision provides great entertainment, not great depth. And for a film like this, and when done as well as it is, that’s all I can ask for.