There seems to be something inherently attractive about the idea of working with an A-list director on a seventies period piece. Last year, David O. Russell assembled a cast of some of the most eclectic actors working today for his adaptation of the Abscam story, American Hustle, and now Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, The Master) is attempting to capture some of that same magic with an even bigger cast in Inherent Vice. However, while Hustle was a fairly straightforward biographical tale, Vice is a drug fueled detective tale that feels like a film ripped straight from the decade it takes place in.
One night in the middle of 1970, private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is wasting away on his beach house cot presumably after a long drug trip, when an old flame by the name of Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up in his hallway. She needs his help, as her current lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) a filthy rich real estate mogul, is about to be institutionalized by his wife and her lover in order to collect his fortune. As Doc sets off on his journey to aid Shasta, a tangled web begins to weave involving a Nazi cult, a mysterious old ship, a saxophone player who’s gone into hiding (Owen Wilson) and a whole host of other puzzle pieces.
One thing is for certain, this is not a film that suffers fools. The information comes at an extremely fast pace, and it quickly comes into question whether Doc’s constant high is casting a shadow over his experiences throughout the story. As such, the plot can feel very inaccessible and confusing at times, even if you’re paying the maximum amount of attention. This will definitely prove frustrating for a great deal of viewers, especially those simply expecting a goofy mystery romp through the 70s. While there certainly are a great deal of light moments here, there are also more still that try to challenge the audience’s perception of what or who they’re looking at, and these can be the points where someone could tune out of the film completely.
Fortunately, there is plenty here to enjoy even if one looses track of the story, starting with it’s main character, Doc who proves to be yet another wonderful creation by Joaquin Phoenix. As essentially a more resourceful and intelligent version of The Dude from the Big Lebowski, he becomes a great deal of fun to watch as he struggles to articulate just how clever he is, or to simply navigate around the room, because of how the drugs have affected his mind. However, no matter how silly he gets, there’s always a sense that he is one hundred percent capable of solving this case, no matter how long it takes, and his dedication keeps us with him. Beyond doc,the entire supporting cast does a great job. Josh Brolin (who gets the most screen time of these players) comes off best as an abrasive detective hilariously desperate to hold on to his masculinity, while Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Benicio Del Toro all give timing and life to fairly small roles.
The humor is also spot on for the most part. Often times, in the middle of a dense conversation about the case, the characters will break that and say or do something that is often laugh out loud funny. This constant element of surprise serves to break up some of the monotony of what is essentially nearly three hours of investigation and question/answer sequences. Even if one hates the film, there will definitely be a couple moments from it that they may giggle about now and again.
The movie does majorly suffer from its sheer density though. There is a point right around the third act where information overload hits, and just when that might create a tune out, there are sequences that are essentially rambling that go on for far too long. The way this all culminates is nothing really special either, making all of that time spent seem like a bit of a waste.
I can only really recommend Inherent Vice as an experience, and not so much as a good film. There are a great deal of elements that are working here, as Paul Thomas Anderson has as always made a beautiful looking film that excels in the performance department. However, there is simply too much bulk and padding for a movie of this type, which would have definitely been better off around the hour and a half to two hour mark. For me, it definitely ranks among Anderson’s more minor works, and in a few years once the hype washes away, I doubt people will still be talking about it.