Editor’s note: As one of the most anticipated releases of the year, Inherent Vice has drawn interest from many of our writers. As such, this article will collect a stream of content on the film – reviews, essays, and other general reactions. Seen the film? Join in the discussion! Leave a comment and it may get added to the master article.
Review by Josef Rodriguez
Inherent Vice is the first Thomas Pynchon novel to be adapted for the screen. Known for his dense, layered storytelling and relatively verbose prose, Pynchon is often thought of as an unfilmable author, one whose stories only function in the literary medium. If Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film about Doc Larry Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually stoned PI who goes looking for wealthy real estate tycoon Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) as a favor to his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) – is any indication, the initial verdict may have been correct.
Inherent Vice, in its good-natured incoherence and thick haze of pot smoke, is one of the year’s most frustrating films. Anderson, who has, in his own way, become a self-appointed historian of Los Angeles, continues to explore the rich and varied history of his home state. There Will Be Blood charted the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview in the town of Little Boston, California. Boogie Nights told audiences about the booming California porn industry of the 1970s and 80s. Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love are contemporary love letters to Anderson’s pride and joy, featuring a series of beautiful images from DP Robert Elswit, who has shot all of Anderson’s films.
In Inherent Vice, Anderson focuses his attention on the transition between the pre-Manson, free-loving 60s, and the increasingly political adjustment of the following decade. Doc Sportello seems to be one of the few 60s hippies left, and his quest to find Mickey Wolfmann highlights just how out of touch with the rest of the world he is. Run-ins with smack-addicted dentists and double-crossing FBI agents serve to further prove how greatly the nation was in a state of paranoid disarray, and Anderson captures this perfectly throughout each scene of the film.
However, Anderson can’t seem to set his sights on one location or character for too long before leaping into the next subplot, red herring, or revelation. Cameos aside – Martin Short and Owen Wilson, in particular, make a great impression with just a few minutes of screen time – Inherent Vice isn’t able to maintain any functioning tone or energy because it’s both too in love with itself and completely unsure of what it is.
For a comedy there aren’t much laughs. For a stoner film, recreational drug use isn’t an integral part of the narrative. For a crime caper, there isn’t much crime to investigate. And for a mystery, there just isn’t much intrigue to the whole affair. Sportello jumps from one caricature to the other, receiving a new piece of information, and going further down this rabbit-hole of dead ends and contradictions. Nearly every scene in this film functions as a long-winded piece of expositional dialogue, with some irreverent comedy thrown in courtesy of Josh Brolin’s excellent performance, and it’s neither interesting to look at nor listen to. At times it feels as if Anderson is just having his characters recite monologues from Pynchon’s book like some kind of performed reading, and the result isn’t so much boring as it is wholly uninteresting.
As Sportello himself, Joaquin Phoenix gives a predictably fantastic performance, infusing the character with a unique pathos that carries him through scenario after scenario of debauchery and danger. Newcomer Katherine Waterston also impresses as Sportello’s missing ex, and the dynamic they share is both tragic and sweet in equal measures. One specific flashback featuring Sportello and Shasta as they run through Sunset, looking for dope in the middle of a rainstorm, flawlessly encapsulates the nature of their relationship at its best and worst, and it’s one of the only emotionally satisfying scenes in the entire film.
And that, in and of itself, might be the biggest problem with Inherent Vice. Anderson is known for his cinematic tangents, often approaching a certain subject through the guise of an ensemble. While he doesn’t quite do that here, the film does feature a plethora of characters practically sprinting through the frame as they spit information at Doc Sportello. This would all be acceptable if Inherent Vice was, in the least bit, consistently funny or dramatically engaging. But it isn’t. It’s far too long (148 minutes? Really?), more convoluted than it rightfully needs to be, and tries so hard to be a fun time while also being taken seriously. For the first time in his career, Anderson has finally got to come to terms with the fact that he cannot have his cake and eat it, too.
Review by Marcus Michelen
In the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a central character tries to come up with all possible contexts in which the statement “You never did the Kenosha Kid” could occur. In one context, “The Kenosha” is a dance move; in another, a man named “The Kenosha Kid” signs a letter bearing only the text “You never did.” This game of wordplay is presented without warning—Pynchon enumerates the sequence of situations, jumping from context to context. It’s a bizarre passage that is indicative of Pynchon’s style: playful, deliberately confusing, and encyclopedic. Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice—released a full 36 years after Gravity’s Rainbow—shows Pynchon making a novel in the same style as the “Kenosha Kid” passage; Inherent Vice is a collage of familiar film noir tropes stacked on top of each other to exhausting heights. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice manages to translate Pynchon’s manic energy into a gigantic into a masterful period piece about paranoia, addiction, cults and every other word associated with post-Summer of Love Los Angeles.
Inherent Vice tells the story of Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a constantly-high, hippie private investigator who receives a visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Epworth (Katherine Waterston). Shasta reveals to Doc that she’s having an affair with Mickey Wolfmann—a real-estate mogul—and that Wolfmann’s wife Sloane is hatching a plot to have Mickey committed to a mental institution. She asks Doc to do what he can to foil Sloane’s plan. Things go wrong quickly as Doc is knocked unconscious on a murder scene and Mickey and Shasta both disappear. As Doc investigates the disappearances of Mickey and Shasta, he traverses 1970’s Los Angeles and begins to uncover what he believes to be a city-wide cult and develops a conspiracy theory to go along with it.
Inherent Vice is a comedic detective story presented with a stoner’s hysteria. This is ultimately a mystery, and Anderson fills nearly every scene with a major plot twist and a handful of red herrings. Every film noir trope we’re familiar with is here: the femme fatale (Waterson’s Shasta Fey), the in-the-know prostitute (Elaine Tan’s Xandra), the supposed-to-be-dead-but-actually-alive guy (Owen Wilson’s Coy Harlington), and the cop with whom our protagonist has a love/hate relationship (Josh Brolin’s Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen). Anderson’s relatively faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s novel maintains the pastiche qualities of the original text, and only cuts out one major plot point of the novel, yielding a dense film filled to the brim with references to both Charles Manson and Gilligan’s Island as well as everything we’ve come to expect from a detective story.
Anderson’s desire to condense a 369 page post-modern detective novel into a two-and-a-half hour film makes it difficult to have a good handle on exactly what’s happening in every scene but this sense of confusion is true to Pynchon’s writing. To paraphrase a great music critic, to accuse Pynchon of being confusing would be like accusing Hemingway of being too terse—not only does it go without saying, it’s kind of what he’s selling. The confusing nature of his work often matches the state of his protagonists. Our hero in Inherent Vice is a constantly-high dude in increasingly complicated circumstances; however confused the audience is, it’s impossible to be more confused than Doc.
Inherent Vice’s greatest charms, however, don’t lie in isn’t its post-modern tendencies; it’s that it manages to succeed at being a damn-good detective story and period piece about 1970’s Los Angeles. Doc Sportello makes for a fantastic protagonist, just smart enough to be good enough at his job and just dumb enough to miss obvious connections. He’s a character whose past is filled with loss, and resorts to constant drug use not only to hide the pain but also because he thinks life is more fun high. Anderson presents this comic detective story completely straight-faced; characters give increasingly ridiculous and long monologues, which Anderson duly frames classically: dead-center against an unobtrusive background (as Anderson has done in the past).
For a director known for his showy, filmic techniques, Anderson leans heavily on his writing—and Pynchon’s original text—for Inherent Vice. The majority of the film consists of mostly-static shots of characters whispering to each other, with only the occasional tracking shot. Shot by frequent PTA-collaborator Robert Elswit, Inherent Vice is surprisingly great to look at. While the film is often visually bare, Elswit and Anderson take advantage of texture to elevate what would otherwise be mundane visuals. Much of Inherent Vice consists of interior shots, and the texture of every wall can be felt by simply looking at the film. By sacrificing the dramatic lighting and stage-like compositions of their previous collaborations, Elswit and Anderson have succeeded in creating visuals that stand apart from their previous (breathtaking) collaborations.
As Doc Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix is predictably fantastic. He’s nailed the air of sadness and solitude surrounding Doc, and his scenes with Waterson are dripping with the unique brand of tension that can only exist between ex-lovers. More impressive is Phoenix’s chemistry with Josh Brolin. The relationship between Doc and Bigfoot is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, perhaps even more complex than in the novel. The two share a mutual hatred for each other but ultimately have a symbiotic relationship. Both men have pity on each other, as they both view the other as a pathetic. Their relationship is much deeper than simple hippie vs. square fodder, and Phoenix and Brolin are careful not to allow their performances to veer into caricature.
Inherent Vice is the sort of film that many are going to despise. It’s easy to get frustrated by the sheer amount of dialogue and relentless plot-twists, but if you give into it, you’ll see that this is much bigger than a standard detective story. Like There Will Be Blood and The Master before it, this is a capital-A American film about corruption, pain and greed. This is a film that has the balls to parody the tropes detective stories while pushing those very tropes back in your face. No review can adequately communicate the insanity that Anderson has orchestrated in Inherent Vice. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for many, Inherent Vice will be nothing short of an American classic.
Review by Maximilien Luc Proctor
“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” –Winston Churchill
With bold colors, razor wit, and a soft demeanor, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of sleepy security by the slow-zoom long take conversations of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. If you aren’t careful you’ll miss the plot — but that just might be the point. The year is 1970 and a lounging hippie-turned-detective’s ex-lover appears out of the blue asking him to investigate her current affair. Every investigation leads to a new one and a circle of clues don’t seem to reveal much other than more complicated clues. There is mention of something called the ‘Golden Fang,’ which is omnipresent and vague. It may be nothing, or it may be everything. What it stands for, though, is of the most consequence: as the hippie dream of ‘60s flower power falls into desolate decay, the ‘Golden Fang’ of capitalism begins to sink its teeth into establishing a new-and-improved American dream. Manson marked the end of an era and the film presents a 1970 in the midst of a new America, in which people are more than ready to trade in free love for square jobs.
Our protagonist, Doc Sportello (brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix as a wonderful noir-revival detective constantly surrounded by a smoky haze), seems calmly caught in crossfire he can’t quite see. He’s got a straight job as a private investigator, but carries it out haphazardly. He waltzes from clue to clue writing hilariously useless notes-to-self and struggling to build an invisible pyramid one brick at a time. While his performance here isn’t quite the tour-de-force of physical expression that was Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 effort, The Master, Phoenix serves the zany character perfectly without overdoing it.
Paul Thomas Anderson perfectly adapts Pynchon’s prose as no one else could: the screenplay is intensely well-written, sharp, fast, and filled with furious wit that shines even brighter in delivery than it reads on the printed page. Anderson condenses Pynchon’s uncanny knack for funny and meaningful dialogue without sacrificing its verbose nature. On the other hand, there is so much conversation that the entire film is brimming with them from start to finish. That said, the film stars an ensemble cast where every cameo brings a small piece to the slowly developing puzzle, and every player does their part justice — the acting is terrific across the board and watching the characters converse is a continuous treat. Despite all this conversation, it remains an intensely visual film, with sight gags that rival the dialogue in their capacity for comedy. And where most would have almost certainly cut the whole film into an endless collection of shot-reverse-shot drudgery, Anderson keeps his cool and puts his trademark long takes to great use.
As with most P.T. Anderson films, one could easily spend an entire review merely citing many an homage, borrowed or replicated shots, a mixed bag of influences. Here there are inklings of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange, and The Big Lebowski, as well as countless others — but the biggest take away is Inherent Vice’s acute sense of self. Like these great films it borrows from, it is great not because it flaunts its cinephilic knowledge (barring the mention of a house having been lit by the great noir-era cinematographer James Wong Howe) but because of how it builds off of such material in new and bold directions.
But what is Inherent Vice really about? Well, it’s about the planets, and hippie ESP, and Joanna Newsom as an all-knowing audience surrogate narrator conjoining the collected clues. It’s about misunderstandings, and signifiers, and how conspiracies aren’t always aware of their own supposed scope. It’s about “little kid blues,” and missing an innocence lost that maybe never really existed to begin with. It’s about the imminent threat of capitalism by way of Nixon and the model American family. Most of all, it’s about what Pynchon called “Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”Continue Reading Issue #35
December 12, 2014 (limited) | January 9, 2015 (wide)
2 hr. 28 min.
Comedy, Crime, Drama
Paul Thomas Anderson
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Katherine Waterston, Jordan Christian Hearn, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jeannie Berlin
But I wonder if the review, or the reviewer’s expectations, would’ve been different had they not been so clearly influenced by Pynchon’s presence in the work. I didn’t see anybody making larger connections to “Oil!” when PTA made “There Will Be Blood”, despite that being the source material. Having not seen it yet (opening in Chicago soon), I am eagerly awaiting it, and reading the book too. I just hope one doesn’t collapse under the weight of the other.
Hi Twiggles, thanks for checking out TFP! We’ve just updated this post with a second opinion from a different writer — maybe you’ll be more in line with his thoughts? Hope you get to see the film soon!