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.