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Inherent Vice Review: Trying to Hold onto an Era Already Ended

Friday, January 09, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Inherent Vice
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson
Three and a half stars out of five

Inherent Vice is a film ostensibly about being unable to let go of better times in one's past and using means most convoluted to preserve those good feelings. It's a heavy sentiment, one that would leave most filmmakers in a place of dark relationship drama. Luckily, Paul Thomas Anderson is not most filmmakers and Inherent Vice is a bonkers comedy with more in common with the anarchy of the Marx brothers than the detached judgement of Stanley Kubrick.

After his last two films, the Kubrickian There Will Be Blood and The Master, it wouldn't be off base to assume Anderson's latest would follow a similar path. The ingredients are there for some high drama. Joaquin Phoenix's Doc Sportello is a private eye who can't forget the one who got away, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). He lives in a drug and booze haze, bored out of his mind, whiling his days away as the hippy era begins its swift decline in 1970. A mournful tale could easily come from this.

But Shasta Fay arrives at his door one night saying she's in trouble and needs the help he is uniquely qualified to give. You see, her boyfriend, a real estate mogul in Los Angeles, is possibly being set up by his wife and her guy on the side so they can steal more than just a piece of his pie. Now we're getting away from the high brow and into some pulpy fun of the Raymond Chandler persuasion.

Anderson, working from Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name, takes that Chandler-style setup and lampoons it with vigor while simultaneously celebrating its inherent story generation abilities. We get one- or two-scene cameos by well known stars, playing Black Panthers who find common cause with the Aryan Brotherhood (“We had some similar ideas about the American government.”), a dentist on a cocaine and fornication spree, a surf band saxophonist turned government (double? Triple?) agent, and most notably, Josh Brolin's Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a flat-topped aspiring actor and hippy loather who nonetheless “works” with Doc on various cases while providing plenty of sight gags involving his love of frozen bananas.

It is in those sight gags where Inherent Vice takes its hardest turn away from its detective roots. The drugs give Doc some delightful hallucinations – Bigfoot's first appearance is in a commercial where he is basically dressed as The Simpsons' Disco Stu and talking directly to Doc through the TV – and even allows Anderson a major out when utilizing what is typically one of narrative storytelling's biggest eye rollers: the use of voiceover narration. The film's narrator, Sortilege, played by musician Joanna Newsom, is an ethereal, all seeing being with great insight into the inner workings of Doc's hazy psyche, mostly because she is a figment of his imagination. She rides in the car with him, plays a Ouija board with him and Shasta, and generally fills us in on (some of) the missing pieces the purposely incomprehensible narrative takes.

But that incomprehensibility is one of the film's biggest problems. Sure, it works as a joke on a larger level, because these noir-style movies are always needlessly difficult to understand when you try to pick apart the ins and outs of their plots. However, Anderson commits too heavily to that joke at the expense of partnering a pared down plot line with the film's biggest strength, its melancholic humor about not being able to let go.

Anderson smartly chooses to leave us by closing the dangling character arcs without solving much (any?) of the principle mystery. Some couples are reunited happily, others less so, but there's hope nonetheless. They're all looking to grasp the good times again, which get further away with every moment. But at least they can laugh on the way down.

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