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Graphic Inherent Vice is, First and Last, an Exercise in Style

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 01, 2015
Graphic <i>Inherent Vice</i> is, First and Last, an Exercise in Style

DVD Release Date: April 28, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: December 12, 2014 (limited); wider January 9, 2015.
Rating: R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, strong language, and some violence)
Genre: Dark Comedy
Run Time: 148 min
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom, Jena Malone

Editor's note: This review contains frank discussion of the film's cautionary content, including graphic sexuality and illicit drug use. Parents please be advised.

Arguably the most admired filmmaker of his generation, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career out of artful, lengthy, and highly volatile character studies – from Boogie Nights and Magnolia to this century's There Will Be Blood and The Master – all captured with bold cinematic strokes. Inherent Vice, his latest, proves such a strange yet so assured stylistic detour from his track record that it’ll likely intrigue few people beyond PTA devotees, hardcore cinephiles and, eventually, potheads looking for a double-feature companion with The Big Lebowski.

The first-ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel – a revered author known for dense stories (a.k.a. impossible to adapt to the big screen) covering a wide variety of subjects, styles, and themes even in the same work – Inherent Vice unfolds in the style and structure of old 1930s noir detective stories (including the anachronistic voice-over) but set in a drug-fueled and free-lovin' 1970 Los Angeles. It follows private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, who also starred in The Master) as he helps an ex who's current lover may be the victim of a devious plot set by the man's wife.

That's a very basic premise for a story so convoluted with tangents and red herrings that it’s excessively complex by design. The utterly pointless notes Doc jots down in his notepad serve to underline this intent, as does the comedic tone. Anderson avoids clarity so as to emphasize atmosphere, which makes this more interesting than substantial. The point isn't about gathering clues or solving mysteries. Inherent Vice is, first and last, an exercise in style.

Anderson submerges us into a seedy L.A. underbelly on the tail end of the sexual revolution – complete with the sex and drugs that comes with it, along with disparate forces from Neo-Nazis to Black Panthers to the secretive Golden Fang – through an aesthetic that captures the pulpy nature of dime-store paperbacks as well as the marijuana haze that Doc generally lives in (whether by association or actual consumption). The story leads Doc from one lead to the next, but it rarely follows a logic that can be tracked except in moments when you realize just how far off the main path you've been taken.

The purpose, then, is to use the mystery structure to loosely tie together an ongoing series of vignettes in which Anderson has fun experimenting with a much slower, laid-back, and hypnotic approach than he's known for. Rather than an epic, dynamic canvas, Anderson creates a dark yet colorful palette to float us through, composed of long takes in which the frame evolves from wide to close to medium, to others that remain static as action moves in and out of frame, before slowly dissolving to the next. It’s hallucinatory, as if moving through the fog of a dream state. It’s a potent, rich visual experience, enhanced by the texture of actual celluloid. Anderson remains one of the few film purists to eschew the transition to digital.

It’s also a vision that will test the patience of viewers, despite such confident execution, given its lack of narrative coherence (which is saying something for a director who’s never been considered accessible to begin with). Phoenix and Josh Brolin (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), who plays hard-nosed police detective – and Doc's nemesis – "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, are the anchors in this ever-shifting narrative that drifts through a sea of cameos.

Phoenix's Doc is the most entertaining, and interesting, stoner since Jeff Bridges's The Dude, with layers and nuances that play for more than just laughs. He and his Walk The Line co-star Reese Witherspoon (Wild) share some of the film's funnier (and more comprehensible) scenes, Brolin provides the right touch of menace, and Owen Wilson (Marley & Me) offers whatever emotional heart and dramatic stakes the story achieves. Indie-starlet Katherine Waterston (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) is seductive and mysterious as Doc's ex-lover Shasta (the femme fatale), while the rest of the cast (including the inspired presence of comedian Martin Short as a coked-up philandering dentist) milks each moment, appropriately so, of this Actor's Showcase.

The film's content is graphic, from carnal sexuality to numerous scenes of consuming illicit drugs (ranging from marijuana to heroin), not to mention vulgar language. While true to the world depicted, the film's intentional lack of thematic or philosophic introspection makes the content feel all-the-more gratuitous. And when it tries to pass itself off as exploring characters or relationships at deeper levels, the attempts ring false (even when performed with sincerity). It's hard to make an argument that this explicit content exists for any other reason beyond the base levels of vicarious stimulation and stock genre liberties.

Nevertheless, as it experiments with archetypes in classic and subversive ways, Inherent Vice proves a strong and intriguing (if lesser) entry into Anderson's celebrated canon. And to his credit, Anderson does not desperately reach for any thematic depth beyond the material's scope or try to shoehorn in some forced examination of the human condition (even as he has fun examining human behavior). To the extent the film has charm, much of it comes from a total lack of pretense. Inherent Vice is too well-crafted to be dismissed, but lacks any deeper resonance to be considered great – or even in the league of Anderson's best.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Explicit visual depictions, on several occasions throughout, of various forms of preparing and consuming illicit drugs, ranging from marijuana to heroin to cocaine (a lot of pot smoking especially). Alcohol and liquor is consumed at various times. Cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: Strong profanity throughout, The F-word is commonly used, both as a general profanity as well as a vulgar sexual reference. A few instances of the A-word and S-word. Several vulgar sexual expressions, both in reference to anatomy as well as sexual conduct. Several crude gestures.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: An explicit, aggressive sex scene that plays out at length, involving various acts. Two different paintings showing full front female nudity. Real full frontal female nudity. Lesbian sex is suggested/performed off-frame. Two women kiss. Bare buttocks seen beneath a miniskirt. Other examples of scantily-clad women.
  • Violence/Other: A violent assault occurs. Other forms of physical violence/fisticuffs. Moments of gunplay and violence, including a killing at point blank range.

Publication date: December 11, 2014