Although I consider myself quite the “film buff”, I am in the minority in regards to the works of Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s not without talent and his ambition is very admirable, especially given that his newest film Inherent Vice is adapting a novel deemed “unfilm-able.” Although I have not read it, I can clearly see why it has been a challenge to adapt Thomas Pynchon’s work. While the film is a departure from Anderson’s recent work, it does have something in common as well; it is definitely not a film for the average moviegoer. Those looking for a cohesive crime story or knee slapping comedy will find themselves befuddled on numerous occasions. I even found myself scratching my head trying to keep track of the numerous plot threads and characters. At a runtime of almost two and a half hours, it was an exhausting experience. Perhaps Pynchon is still unfilm-able, but I’ll be darned if Anderson didn’t give it his best shot.
It’s difficult for me to summarize what the “plot” of Inherent Vice details. Either I would give too little information and entice those who this film would not interest or too much and spoil the entire film. This is not a problem because Inherent Vice does not bother to make the plot or story make a lick of sense. That’s largely the point. We watch our main character, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), interact with other people in a web of Nazis, kidnapping, extortion, and drug dealing during the drug fueled days of the 1970s. I believe the point is to let the film’s events rush over you like a junkie experiencing a high. That certainly is a viable reason and will appeal to many, but I couldn’t find enough substance to latch onto this overly long ride.
If you look at a film such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Big Sleep, there’s many similarities to Inherent Vice. Both aforementioned films are also difficult to follow and not about the plot. However, it’s interesting to see where the story goes next, who the characters meet, and what they say. The biggest problem I had with Inherent Vice is that a lot of the events within the film don’t congeal or hold little relevance to anything else that happens in the movie. It also runs quite longer than either of the films I used for comparison. Some scenes go on far too long with not enough substance. The narration which acts as a companion to the events of the film because it doesn’t hold the truth necessary for a detective story/film noir. It suffers from utilizing a great deal of exposition and constantly “telling” as opposed to “showing.”
As much of a mess as I found the story of Inherent Vice to be, I would not call the film a failure by any means. The biggest strength of the film comes from the wide assortment of colorful characters. Phoenix reaffirms his position as one of the best American actors of today with his performance as Doc. Looking like a cross between Wolverine and your average hippie, his mannerisms and befuddled demeanor throughout his investigation garners a good amount of laughs. It’s fun to watch him come across a revolving door of familiar faces from Owen Wilson to Reese Witherspoon to a scene stealing Martin Short. Granted, I never felt like I got to know any of these people, but they suit their purpose as actors in a collection of skits stitched into a movie. It’s tough to get to know your characters when they’re given limited screen time.
Aside from Doc, the only other truly memorable character in the film is Detective Bjornsen. Played by Josh Brolin, his interactions with Doc stand out above the rest. Brolin is able to transcend some of the more cartoonish elements of his character such as a flat top and interesting manner of eating bananas. He brought a sense of reality to the film, but his relationship with Doc is too inconsistent. It’s never made clear if he’s a friend, confidant, or adversary of Doc because every time we see him his attitude changes.
Anderson is a director who excels at collaborating with his technical team and composer. The production design, sets, and costumes all look vibrant and compliment the use of shooting Inherent Vice on film as opposed to digital. There’s just something about shooting period pieces on digital that looks off to me (looking at you Michael Mann!). Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score is one of the strongest of the year. It’s very experimental but nevertheless fits the film along with the choice of music. I’m a huge Neil Young fan and always enjoy hearing his songs alongside a scene.
For a filmmaker who has previously showed his ability to mesh a period setting with an abundance of characters in Boogie Nights, I found Inherent Vice disappointing. I felt as if we needed more focus or less characters to justify an excessive run time. It’s such a shame because I give Anderson a lot of respect for such an ambitious project. His success on the technical levels alone is worthy of praise. If I was to find a phrase to sum up Inherent Vice and my thoughts on it, I would turn the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” on its ear. To me, the parts of Inherent Vice are more satisfying than the overall picture.