Inherent Vice

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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Reece Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Hong Chau, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Christopher Allen Nelson, Keith Jardine, Martin Dew, Jefferson Mays, Martin Donovan.

“Back when, she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout. Now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all”

Do you know that feeling of anticipation you get whenever a respected director is releasing a new film? It’s the same feeling that often surrounds Quentin Tarantino’s releases. Well, I also get that feeling when I hear of a new Paul Thomas Anderson project and I’m pretty certain many others do too. That being said, Anderson’s last two introspective films There Will Be Blood and The Master took him much further away from his earlier vibrant works of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and left a number of his fans finding them too onerous. Many may not agree but if he was ever to bridge that gap then Inherent Vice is that bridge.

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It’s 1971 in Gordita Beach, California, where private eye, Larry “Doc” Sportello conducts his gumshoe business. He’s approached, out of the blue, by his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Watertson) to search for her, recently vanished, new boyfriend and real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc takes on the case but stumbles on a conspiracy that involves a whole host of corrupt characters and soon realises that things are certainly not as they seem.

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Let’s just begin by stating that Inherent Vice poses more questions than it actually answers. As a result, the film is downright perplexing – to say the least. The answers that can be found amidst it’s dense cloud of cannabis smog are not easy to find and Anderson is in no mood to walk you through it either. In fact, during the opening scene where Doc is hired by his ex-girlfriend on a possible abduction case she wonders why he’s not overly interested in the details, to which he responds “Don’t worry. Thinking comes later”. And indeed it does come later. So much so, that you begin to wonder if your bewilderment is a direct result of your own drug addled, misspent youth.

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What’s very important to note is that the confusion is entirely intentional and a lot of events are possibly taking place in Doc’s head which (as our overhead commentary informs us) are also influenced by the astrological alignments with Jupiter and other planetary systems. Let’s face it, Doc’s a Hippie and if his head wasn’t a little drug infused and mashed up then we’d be reaching our whodunit conclusion a lot easier and smoother – and the film would be a lot more dull as a result. This is what allows the story a creativity. All be it, a creativity that confuses the viewer. One minute he’s watching two women getting it on at a massage parlour where you can purchase a pussy feast for $14.95 and the next he’s, unsuspectingly, batted around the head only to wake up next to a dead body where the local police take an interest. The police interest takes shape in a hilarious turn from Josh Brolin’s Lt. Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen who’s described as an “old hippie-hating mad dog… SAG member, John Wayne walk, flat top of Flintstone proportions and that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations” – and he also seems to have some very expressive sexual urges that manifest in his eating of phallic, chocolate coated bananas.

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By now, you’ll have heard about the films mentioned in the same breath as Inherent Vice. It has an almost indecipherable plot like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep; the same offbeat Hippie private-eye from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the same pot-headed, labyrinthine confusion and humour of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. I found the latter to hang heavily over Joaquin Phoenix’s work. At times, it’s hard to forget Jeff Bridges as Phoenix skilfully manages to channel his inner Dude and delivers a nuanced and, surprisingly, funny performance. None of the comparisons are inaccurate, however, as it’s heavily influenced by them all, but Inherent Vice can admirably lay claim to carving it’s own place among them.

Those well versed in Anderson’s work will no doubt recognise his usual traits and ability to capture the times; in Boogie Nights you felt the fun-filled and erratic cocaine vibe of the 70’s/80’s disco scene. In Magnolia, you felt the burden and pain of dysfunctional families and relationships. In There Will Be Blood, you felt the weight of the depression and the greed of an oil baron. In The Master, you were transfixed by the cult and it’s charismatic leader and here, in Inherent Vice, you feel the hazy marijuana comforting your head, making it lazy and hard to process even the smallest detail. Anderson himself, knew about the complexity of Thomas Pynchon’s 384 page novel (of which he personally, and painstakingly, deciphered and adapted) and even worried that it would be criticised as “Incoherent Vice“. There are numerous characters introduced, making it hard to work out who’s who and plot strands drift off and go up in smoke quicker than Doc’s joints. On a first viewing it can look like a mess but Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright summed it up nicely by calling it “Inherent Twice” as after reflection and a (very much required) second viewing, Inherent Vice, is a wonderful piece of work. In all honesty, it would take quite a number of viewings to fully comprehend it and even then you’ll realise that some plot strands are intended to be pointless. There’s a level of surrealism in many scenes that it only reinforces our “patchouli fart” perception of events. All before Anderson abandons the sharp humour for a most intense and explosive denouement that’s very impressively handled.

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It’s hard to talk about the plot of the film as a) it would delve into spoiler territory and b) it’s just too fuckin’ hard to talk about in the first place, but there are so many positives from this film that’s it’s disappointing to hear that many have chosen to judge it too soon. Whether it be “Incoherent Vice” or “Inherent Twice” is entirely up to the viewer. I can side, somewhat, with the former but absolutely agree with the latter. If the film can be described in two words I’d use the words of Doc Sportello himself… “Right On!

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Mark Walker

Trivia: This film’s cast features show-biz connections that are inherently vice-like in their twining, including: the brother of the late River Phoenix, the brother of Luke Wilson, the brother of Julia Roberts, the sister of Kristin Scott Thomas, the daughter of Sam Waterston, the son of James Brolin, the daughter of Elaine May (Jeannie Berlin ), the wife of Andy Samberg (Joanna Newsom), and the partner of Paul Thomas Anderson (Maya Rudolph ).

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36 Responses to “Inherent Vice”

  1. Nicely put! I think a lot of people have been unfair with this one, and though I do understand the criticisms it’s not impossible to follow ‘enough of it’ to get by. But you know how I feel about it. I like your point about it being a bridge between the other recent films and the earlier ones, and like you PTA is one of those directors that I look forward to more than any other. Hasn’t let us down yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm, interesting piece. Whatever PTA does I’m fascinated by and this looks like an intriguing messy work. Can’t wait to see this.

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    • Intriguingly messy is one way of describing mate. Many have failed to connect with it and I won’t argue with them. It’s hard to get your head around but I still loved it. It was stronger after a second viewing too.

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  3. Great review Mark. You might remember me saying that I struggled with The Master and although I found this one a bit more appealing it still feels deliberately difficult to me. As yet I haven’t managed to give The Master a second look – I still intend to do this – but Stu from Popcorn Nights has recommended that I try Boogie Nights for a more accessible Anderson too.

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    • As you know, I’m a huge fan of The Master, Natalie. And I definitely think it’s works on repeat viewings. This is very much the same. I’d go as far to say that this needs more viewings than The Master and that’s saying something. However, if it’s more accessible you’re looking for, I’d agree with Stu; Boogie Nights doesn’t demand much other than that you are entertained. And it finds that very easy to do.

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      • I don’t usually have difficulty with investing time into movies but The Master and Inherent Vice haven’t really inspired me to do that yet. I wonder if they are a bit like diving into the deep end. An appreciation of Anderson’s earlier work, Boogie Night’s and Magnolia (neither of which I’ve seen) might be a better introduction and get me more fired up about his style.

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  4. It’s certainly possible that both Boogie Nights and Magnolia would appeal to you more. They are two fantastic films and demand less of a commitment. The likes of The Master and Inherent Vice are like diving into the deep end but to be honest, I think Anderson’s style has changed quite a bit since his earlier films. It would do no harm to give them a go, though. I was also quite taken with his debut Hard Eight (or “Sydney” as it’s also known).

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  5. Fine review as always Mark! As I still have not seen anything by PT Anderson yet (yes I know, I know, I will get to ’em soon) I’ll go in w/ neutral expectation. I do love the cast and the trailer looked hilarious, which seems different from his more serious work like Magnolia or There Will Be Blood. I’m very curious to know what photo Joaquin is looking at in that still (which was also in the trailer) 🙂

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    • Thanks Ruth. You haven’t seen a single film of his? Aww come on!! 😉 To be honest, though, this might not be the best film to start on. It’s very, very complicated and seems to have put many people off it. It does have some fans, though, of which I am one. I think it’s been judged too soon as if there ever was a film that needed to be seen more than once, it’d be this.

      As for that photo that Phoenix is looking at. That’s just a brief reaction he has to gain some laughs. Its a good moment though.

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      • Ahah, I figure there are directors I love whose films you haven’t seen yet either 😉 That’s the thing w/ films, it’s so vast you just can’t see ’em all at once. I will get to ’em eventually, though some of his films might be too dark/violent for me. I’ve become more selective with what I want to see as I’m getting older.

        I do like Joaquin and I don’t mind complicated movies, so who knows, I might enjoy it!

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      • Haha! Fair point! It’s too damn hard to keep up with everything. Anderson is one of those directors that I put to the top of my list every time. Admittedly, his films aren’t for everyone, though. Going by your taste, I’d check out Punch Drunk Love. I don’t think it’s his best but it’s a good starting point for you and one more you’d be more attune to. 🙂

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  6. It’s a crazy movie. But it’s one that I seemed to enjoy. Maybe more than I had wanted to. Good review Mark.

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  7. Hi again Mark! WOW, i’m flabbergasted that PTA did Punch Drunk Love. I mean, Adam Sandler did make a decent movie once in a while eh? 😉 The one I’m most curious about is Magnolia, as I heard Cruise was very good in there, but yeah I might start w/ PDL then.

    Now, how about you trying out some period dramas then? You haven’t seen Sense & Sensibility nor Pride & Prejudice right? Those are excellent films in general, not just in its genre. You won’t be disappointed, trust me 😀

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    • Magnolia is a fabulous film, Ruth, and Tom Cruise gives, arguably, his finest performance. How Cruise never took an Oscar for it, I’ll never know.

      As for period drama’s, I’m not adverse to them but I really need to be in the mood for the them. I will check those films out at some point but for some reason I think I might have seen Sense and Sensibility already. 🙂

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  8. I was very confused by this indeed and although I could appreciate a lot of it and had some laughs, it wasn’t for me though.

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    • Understandable Nostra. It certainly keeps you at arms length and it’s very hard to decipher the whole affair. However, that’s exactly what I loved about it and it does make more sense on repeat viewings.

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  9. Shoulda smoked a joint before heading into this one, I gotta say. . .

    Oh well. Perhaps I’ll take advantage during my revisit to this when i can!!!

    Great work Mr. Walker.

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  10. Awwesome write-up man. Funny too, good stuff. What a film eh?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I really think those folk are going in expecting it to all fall neatly into place. Its based in 1970 and the dectective is a stoner hippie ‘doper’ fer chrissakes! Its not meant to make sense people!!

    Also, was it just me that got a real gonzo, Hunter S Thompson vibe from this film? I’m getting the same thing reading the book now.

    Liked by 1 person

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