Reviews

Paul Thomas Anderson Douses Film Noir With Bong Smoke in 'Inherent Vice'

Throughout cinema history, there have been countless films made about detectives and stoners, but nothing has ever been quite like Inherent Vice.


Inherent Vice

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom
Distributor: Warner Bros
Studio: IAC Films and Ghoulardi Film Company
US Release Date: 2015-04-28

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice was released in theaters in late 2014, many critics and cinephiles dismissed it as a lesser work in the filmmaker’s canon. As a result, it was overshadowed by zeitgeist films like American Sniper and Selma, as well as Academy Award favorites such as Boyhood and Birdman. For whatever reason, there wasn’t enough room in the conversation for Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s critically acclaimed novel. Now that the film is available on DVD, movie lovers should dismiss the negative criticism and appreciate the film for the brilliant, bewildering masterpiece that it is.

Perhaps the reason why moviegoers shied away from the film is because it breaks the conventions of classical storytelling. In the opening scene, our main character, private eye and “dope head” Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is presented with a simple goal that needs to be met: His “ex-old lady” Shasta Fey (Katherine Waterston) warns him about a plan to kidnap her wealthy lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and have him committed to an insane asylum. The plan, Shasta says, is being orchestrated by Mickey’s ex-wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her new lover, and Shasta wants Doc to intervene. As the film progresses, however, the story become more complicated, and Doc becomes more confused.

After a while, our enjoyment of the film depends on our ability to abandon any attempt to follow the narrative and embrace the incoherence. It’s not that the film is confusing on a scene-by-scene basis, because we always know what’s going on; rather, it’s just that none of the scenes add up to create a cohesive whole. The film is as fragmented as Doc’s drug-fueled mind, and after 30 minutes, it’s clear that Anderson is less interested in following one narrative path to the end and more interested in providing a glimpse into the life and mind of the main character. It’s possible to deconstruct the film and put the pieces together, but such close analysis does a disservice to Anderson’s artistic intention, which is to convey a particular mood.

When we talk about movies, we usually focus on plot or character. When we talk about Inherent Vice, we should discuss the many brilliant sequences that create a distinct cinematic mood. Anderson captures the mad and melancholy milieu of 1970 Southern California perfectly, and each set piece contributes to a larger feeling that sustains for 150 minutes and continues to hold long after the end credits.

The flashback scene in which Doc and Shasta dance in the rain while Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” plays on the soundtrack is a particular highlight. It’s the kind of moment that makes us fall in love with the movies, and it will linger in my mind for many years to come. In this flashback, Doc and Shasta express feelings of unrestrained exuberance and love that are typical of teenagers, only to be undermined by Doc’s present feelings of longing, loneliness, and nostalgia. There hasn’t been a more effective marriage of image and music in cinema since Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).

Every performance in the film is special. Phoenix is hilarious as Doc, the lovable buffoon who finds himself in one absurd situation after another. He is matched by an impressive supporting cast. Waterston is a surprising stand-out, and the lesser-known actress shines in her breakthrough role as Shasta. The seduction scene toward the end of the film is impossible to shake, and might be the most erotic scene Anderson has ever filmed. In addition, there’s a ridiculously funny Josh Brolin as Bigfoot, a detective that finds a strange liking to phallic foods, a wonderfully bizarre cameo by Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a cocaine-addicted dentist, and a pitch-perfect narration by Joanna Newsom, who plays the all-knowing mystical Sortilège.

Although the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack doesn’t offer special features, it may be worth the purchase for some viewers. This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, and those that love it will want to return to it periodically in an effort to recapture the magic.

Anderson is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, and Inherent Vice solidifies his status as one of the greats. His films express a distinct voice, and he creates singular worlds that showcase his unparalleled imagination. It’s hard to say if there’s a best Anderson film, considering that nearly all of them are masterpieces (only Stanley Kubrick rivals his impressive and influential output), but Inherent Vice deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and There Will Be Blood (2007). Inherent Vice is not, as some snarky critics suggest, the work of a filmmaker that has slacked off to make a stoner movie. Every image in this film has been meticulously crafted, and although the narrative lacks cohesion, this is an artistic choice as opposed to the product of a flawed script. Throughout cinema history, there have been countless films made about detectives and stoners, but nothing has ever been quite like this.

9


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.