The Good: Wonderful acting, Distinct setting, Fun-to-watch characters, Good direction
The Bad: Unnecessary narrations, Needlessly complex at points
The Basics: Not as fun as reading Pynchon, P.T. Anderson makes a compelling film with Inherent Vice that captures the ‘70s drug culture in California well.
Without a doubt, the film I was most excited about in 2014 was The Zero Theorem (reviewed here!). While that might seem like a strange place to begin my review of Inherent Vice, it might make more sense when I note that Inherent Vice is this year’s The Zero Theorem. Allow me to explain; in 2013, The Zero Theorem was put into very limited release in the U.S. right around my birthday and my plan was to go see it with my wife on the big screen as part of that personal event. Alas, it was not to be; the film was delayed repeatedly in the U.S. and came out here in even limited release than it was supposed to! In 2014, the earliest showings of Inherent Vice also seemed like they would coincide with my birthday, but the film was delayed until Oscar Pandering Season. The result was a delayed sense of excitement for the film.
Add to that, Inherent Vice lives in the shadow of The Master (reviewed here!), a film that ruined my birthday back in 2012. Seriously. My wife saved up to pay for the day out and we made a whole event of driving to a theater that was actually showing The Master, because of my love of the works of writer/director P.T. Anderson and then the film sucked righteous balls (is, I believe, the delicate, p.c. way of saying it). So, Inherent Vice became a film I was excited about, but I did not attach a temporal limitation on that excitement. Now out in wide release, I finally managed to see the latest film by P.T. Anderson.
Inherent Vice is based upon the novel Inherent Vice (reviewed here!) by Thomas Pynchon and it is worth noting that while I have read and reviewed the book, this shall remain a very pure review of the film alone. That said, it’s a pretty exciting thing for me to see one of my favorite directors tackle the work of one of my favorite authors. While I have so far considered The Big Lebowski (reviewed here!) the most Pynchon-esque film I’ve yet seen, I was eager to see how Anderson would do with actual Pynchon.
And P.T. Anderson got it right more often than not. Before watching Inherent Vice, my only real trepidation with the idea of an adaptation of Pynchon’s works was that Pynchon’s diction is much of the magic of his novels. He can get away with a certain amount of crazy plotting and random twists because his poetics are amazing. Lacking that, how it would translate to screen seemed uncertain, but Anderson, who adapted Pynchon’s novel, respects much of the author’s writing by using voiceover narration surprisingly well. And, Anderson chose one of Pynchon’s more linear narratives to adapt for the screen!
Doc Sportello is laying in bed one night when his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, shows up. She asks the private detective for help with a situation she is in; her married boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann is in trouble. Wolfmann's wife, Sloane, and her lover are trying to run a scam and they want Shasta’s help. Sloane wants to commit Mickey to an assylum and run off with his wealth and he wants Shasta to assist him in the con, which has led Shasta to a strange moral quandary. Wolfmann’s name comes up prominently in Sportello’s first case the next day when Tariq Khalil (of the Black Guerilla movement) hires him to get money out of a member of the Aryan Brotherhood with whom he’d done business. Sportello heads out to where Channel View Estates are being built by Wolfmann’s company and there he discovers the only operating unit is a “massage” parlor.
But soon, Sportello’s problems multiply as his search for Charlock end with Sportello knocked out and awakening to a interrogation by his nemesis, LAPD detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen about Charlock’s murder and Wolfmann and Shasta’s disappearance. While Sportello is apparently rescued by his lawyer (who is more a marine law lawyer than a criminal lawyer) and released upon his own reconnaissance, he soon finds himself in the crosshairs of the LAPD, FBI, and various criminal enterprises, including Golden Fang gangsters who own the boat by the same name. As drug-smuggling criminals, corrupt cops and swindlers manipulate Sportello, he is knocked around Gordita Beach as a tool for their various interests.
Inherent Vice, like the book, is filled with characters who are goofy and several who are only incidental to the “main” storyline being presented. Hope Harlington’s investigation into her husband’s “murder” and subsequent windfall deposit into her bank account is seemingly random until Coy Harlington turns up as a target of the Golden Fang. With so many characters, some get severely underused – like Dr. Blatnoyd, D.A. Kimball and Smilax (Doc’s lawyer) – and serve more to deliver plot exposition. Conversely, Sortilege might provide some beautiful narration in the form of Pynchon’s lines as voiceovers, but her part in the movie captures the time and place (1970’s California beach country) and the absurdities of it more than provide a real or viable character (her voiceovers about astrology are cringeworthy, but fit the character fine).
What Inherent Vice does well is showcase the talents of director P.T. Anderson and the actors he chose for the film. Inherent Vice might well prove that The Master was an exception to the rule of Anderson’s greatness as a writer-director. In adapting Pynchon’s novel, Anderson was able to take the essential elements of the story and bring to life a sense of Pynchon’s quirky characters. No matter how ridiculous the plot or characters get at various points in Inherent Vice, Anderson makes the film look great and he makes it all feel very much part of the same, distinct setting and narrative.
To make Inherent Vice work, the giant cast had to be fleshed out with amazing talents and fans of Anderson’s works like Magnolia (reviewed here!) and Boogie Nights (reviewed here!) will be unsurprised that he has once again assembled a memorable ensemble cast. Leading the cast are Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello and Josh Brolin as Bigfoot. I’ve never been a fan of Phoenix’s performances – save in Her (reviewed here!) – but as the drug-addled detective Doc Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix nails it! Phoneix taps into the depth of his performance arsenal and comes up with completely credible body language and line deliveries for a befuddled, confused, tool of a protagonist and he makes Sportello work in ways I did not anticipate when the casting for Inherent Vice was first announced!
At the other end of the spectrum, Josh Brolin gives a solid performance as Bigfoot Bjornsen. Brolin’s magic is in playing the part entirely straightlaced; Bigfoot is a character who is a parody of a cop who does not realize he is a joke. Brolin balances the serious line-deliveries with utterly goofy physical comedy (Bjornsen has an oral fixation that Brolin brings to life perfectly!).
The rest of the cast, including Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Jaeger, Eric Roberts, and Katherine Waterston do a decent job of balancing expository backstory to make their characters pop with performances that show instead of tell who they are supposed to be. The result is a film that has moments of peril, but is dominated by a fun, weird, sensibility that one used to only look to the Coen Brothers for (on film); now, P.T. Anderson gives them a run for their money and Inherent Vice delivers an engaging experience for moviegoers!
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Last Five Years
The Seventh Son
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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