Like its constantly reefer toking lead character, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice could use a bit more focus and clarity. The complicated plot sometimes feels like a pothead is describing it to you as it’s occasionally challenging to follow along with. Yet you come away with the notion that Anderson, the master filmmaker responsible for Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, has made exactly the picture he wanted to make.
Based on a 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, Vice stars Joaquin Phoenix (who gave a much different and also terrific performance in PTA’s last previous The Master) as Doc, a stoner private eye in California circa 1970. When we open, he’s visited by his hippie ex Shasta (Katherine Waterston) who’s gotten herself into some trouble with a real estate mogul (Eric Roberts) who may be the victim of some shady dealings by his family. It leads Doc to a case that involves Nazis, a thought to be dead musician (Owen Wilson), and a drug addled dentist (a typically memorable Martin Short). Along the way, we discover Doc’s antagonistic relationship with LAPD detective “Bigfoot”, played with gusto by Josh Brolin.
There’s a lot of subplots involved in Inherent Vice and it provides for smaller roles by familiar faces like Benicio del Toro and Joaquin’s Walk the Line counterpart Reese Witherspoon, among others. At its center is the love story between Doc and Shasta, though they talk about their connection like it barely exists. Phoenix, as always, turns in a fascinating performance that further demonstrates his considerable abilites (the guy can do slapstick comedy when called upon). Waterston, daughter of Sam, is the real find here in a sea of more famous faces.
For the most part, Inherent Vice couldn’t be more different than 2012’s The Master. They are similar in one way: I found it tough to get emotionally involved in either. To be fair, I do not believe that’s what PTA is going for. Vice is about atmosphere and characters and the plot is mostly an afterthought. As with all previous efforts by the director, the atmosphere is something to behold, as is the acting.
The picture has moments where it has a Big Lebowski vibe and not just due to the weed love of the star. There are times when you’ll remember this is coming from the guy who made the brilliant Boogie Nights. Inherent Vice doesn’t belong in the same category as either of those movies, but fans of PTA (of which I certainly am) should find this worthwhile. I suspect that this, like most of Anderson’s work, will improve upon subsequent viewings. The fact that I’ll likely sign up for a second viewing in the future is recommendation enough.
*** (out of four)