Inherent Vice is a movie that makes absolutely no sense, but miraculously I was still able to invest in it. It’s essentially a film noir set in 1970s LA, with all the conscious altering drugs that the setting implies. A detective story that never reveals the mystery, with Inherent Vice Anderson creates a surprisingly immersive, funny, and entertaining film.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a stoner detective contacted by his “ex-old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to help her figure out whether or not to help her boyfriend, super rich real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) avoid the schemes of his wife and her boyfriend to send him to a mental asylum. Before he can make any headway on the case, he’s conked on the head and discovers that Shasta and Mickey have both gone missing. Trying to find them, he looks for assistance anywhere he can, but his questions only lead to more questions.
It’s impossible to keep track of this plot. It’s set up with a semi-convoluted premise, which only gets more mystifying as the film goes on. Doc has a seemingly endless supply of clients and cohorts, and the film navigates us through dozens of supporting characters with information for Doc which may or may not be true. He has an alliance/rivalry with one of the LAPD, Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), but its unclear what his motives are, only that with “that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations” his character seems diametrically opposed to Doc’s free-spirit hippie attitude. But as usual, all is not as it seems. Following along those lines, there are multiple characters who seem to be missing or dead, who aren’t, including Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a former addict/saxophone player turned cult member or activist student. What does he have to do with the Wolfman/Shasta disappearance? No idea man…
Even without knowing how they all relate, it’s fascinating to see all of these colorful 70s characters interact. Characters who are only in the film for a few minutes have a profound impact on it, delivering some great lines or creating some funny situations. The unifying force in all of this is Doc himself, and his narrator/spirit guide Sortilege (Joanna Newsome), whose infrequent appearances had me wondering whether she only existed in Doc’s head.
With a PI at the center of the story, I immediately had film noir in mind going into this film. While the style is understandably a lot different, being set in the 70s, other than that it’s pretty similar and helps you understand the story on some weird level. Shasta is a femme fatale or sorts, the flashbacks to when she and Doc lived together are heartbreaking, and though its unclear how, you feel she is manipulating somehow even though he actually cares for her and she might feel the same. Doc’s frequent consultations with seemingly random people are very reminiscent of film noir, where detectives seem to know everybody and what they know. And like many film noirs, this movie has a deep undercurrent of sadness and bewilderment at how things work out, even during the happier moments.
The dialogue is in this movie is very distinctive and I can only assume it came from the novel (which I hope to read soon). It fits right in with the time period, which is wonderfully recreated. From the costumes to the dialgoue to the soundtrack to the sets these characters inhabit, the film creates its own distinctive world that feels like its own take on the 70s. Especially when compared with last year’s American Hustle, it’s nice to see how laid back and natural the 70s look here. The film has scratches and breaks put or left in, so it feels like you are watching the film directly from the 70s (kind of like Tarantino’s Death Proof).
Inherent Vice is a movie I like more and more as I think about it. I really want to see it again, not just because I still have no idea what happened in this movie, but also because it’s just a solidly entertaining film. It travels into absurdity and confusion and never looks back, all while somehow making an emotional connection with the audience. I have no idea how PTA did it, but he’s made a really good film even while making absolutely no sense.
“Back when they were together, she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout. Now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on Doc that he couldn’t read at all.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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