The skunky stench and hazy after-effects of marijuana can be found all over Paul Thomas Anderson’s hysterical, bewildering, utterly zonked-out shaggy-dog detective movie Inherent Vice. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s much celebrated novel, this is a wild, ridiculous, totally blazed piece of work that had “cult-classic” status written all over it the moment it was released in theaters a few years ago. Different and yet similar to obvious inspirations such as The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep, and The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice likely annoyed many who went in looking for something more traditional, but at the same time, was probably “just-right” for many others. There’ll be no real middle ground with this one. You’ve got to be interested in watching a perpetually stoned, lackadaisical, possibly hallucinating lead character that can’t seem to get out of his own way. The cast is peppered with tons of stars (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, a debauched Martin Short in one of the best scenes in the film) but Phoenix owned the picture. Coming on the heels of his exquisite and varied work in both The Master and Her, he delivered a totally different performance in Inherent Vice, cementing his chameleonic quality to any role he takes on, investing every performance with integrity, intensity, and odd charm. He’s long been one of my favorite actors and I can’t wait to see him in the new film by Lynne Ramsay that just premiered at Cannes.
The “plot” of Inherent Vice can be followed, but I’ll admit that it’s taken me a few viewings to fully digest everything that this film has to offer, as great movies allow for constant exploration. Because Phoenix’s character is essentially an unreliable narrator, and because everyone he comes into contact with screws with him in some way, there’s this sense of randomness to the plot that won’t be to everyone’s liking. Inherent Vice is more about the crazy characters and the druggy aroma and the floral dialogue and stony voice-over and the minutiae of the time period – those looking for an “air-tight” plot need to go find something else. It’s also about the collision of two subcultures, and how America, in particular Los Angeles, was rapidly changing during this time period. Josh Brolin absolutely nailed his supporting role as an angry LAPD officer who clashes with Phoenix multiple times throughout the story. And there’s some of the bravest nudity I’ve ever seen from an actress on the part of the lovely and talented Katherine Waterston, who injected her character with an earthy sensuality that you don’t normally see on the big screen. Inherent Vice carries a distinct visual atmosphere, with master shooter Robert Elswit’s purposefully hazy and scratchy cinematography being just the right tonal fit for the offbeat material. The on-location shooting adds to the cool-factor, and the play-through soundtrack is completely groovy – Can POWER!