Inherent Vice (2014)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
If you ever had to read Thomas Pynchon in a college literature course, you would probably agree that his fiction is no walk in the park. Whether the work is novel-length, or a short story like “Entropy,” the average American reader would find himself unable to casually make his way through Pynchon’s complex, disorienting works. Unfortunately, that trouble translates seamlessly onto the screen with director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.”
As far as I can tell, a plot summary might go something like this: Doc, a hippie private investigator in 1970s California (played by Joaquin Phoenix) begins to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) and the man she was having an affair with, wealthy real estate developer Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). After a turn of events, Doc finds himself the suspect in their disappearance, and the detective put on the case, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), finds himself at odds with Doc once again. As Doc tries to figure out the clues to this ever-complicated case, he’ll come across the likes of a shady dentist (Martin Short) and Owen Wilson (I’m not even sure what his character is) before the case is cracked wide open.
Paul Thomas Anderson has a way of letting actors shine. Anderson’s six feature films prior to “Inherent Vice” received seven acting Oscar nominations between them, including a win for Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood.” This time, Thomas calls upon Joaquin Phoenix to take the lead, and Phoenix doesn’t disappoint. Pynchon’s story and Anderson’s screenplay is a confusing blend of crime drama and dark comedy…it never really decided who the intended audience was, but Phoenix embodies the best of both worlds. He never fails to fall so deeply into character that it’s almost impossible to see the Joaquin Phoenix underneath. It’s the little things he does, like the way he contorts his face, that make his characters so interesting and hard to forget. Josh Brolin gives what could be his best performance since “No Country for Old Men”…though he was great in “Milk”…oh, and what about “True Grit”…heck, I can’t really say. He was good, at any rate. Truthfully, the acting didn’t disappoint on any level. Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterson, Martin Short, and Benicio del Toro (as Doc’s lawyer…I think) were all great casting choices.
Unfortunately, the story didn’t hold its own. It was a jumbled ball of yarn, impossible to unravel. The plot is strung along by the discovery of new evidence in Doc’s case, one new fact after another. But each layer made the case that much more confounding, until a break in the case made us all scratch our heads. But this isn’t a mind-blowingly good plot twist. I don’t think any amount of careful consideration would have helped it make any more sense. “Inherent Vice” isn’t dramatic enough, interesting enough, sad enough, or funny enough to make it worth nearly two-and-a-half hours of your life. It’s driven by story and long periods of dialogue, neither of which are that extraordinary. If you like the hippie character solving what he thinks might be a kidnapping, just re-watch “The Big Lebowski.” If you want to see Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix work together, check out 2012’s “The Master.” In short, you’d be better off skipping “Inherent Vice” in favor of something a little more enjoyable.