Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph and Joanna Newsom
Plot: An old flame (Waterston) breezes into Doc’s (Pheonix) life, suggesting that a property tycoon is about to be kidnapped and sending him on an investigation, involving Aryan bikers, ‘dead’ saxophone players and a heroin organisation called the Golden Fang.
Inherent Vice is both a movie tailored specifically for me, but at the same time, a movie so far out of my usual watch-list that by the time the film rocked to an end, I was lost as to what actually happened.
First, the bits I liked. This is a Noir, straight and true. The Noir genre is my favourite type of story, whether it’s a novel, series or movie. When it comes to tone and character, Anderson flaunts this genre with the passion that Noir purists share. The lead character is a PI, respected by no one and shunned by the cops. A femme fatale, dangerously connected to the hero’s past, bursts back into his life with a case that takes him down perilous roads. It soon becomes clear that Doc Sportello is way out of his league, drifting wherever the questions take him and usually ending up in over his head. However, two things drive him: a protectiveness over his ex-girlfriend who could be in serious trouble and an inherent goodness that makes Sportello, even at his goofiest, a loveable lead hero to follow through in this story. At the same time, Anderson respects and utilises the stock characteristics of the Noir genre, he also tries using them in new and exciting ways. The simple yet effective one is the fact that, rather than having the lead detective narrate the story, as Noir usually loves doing, we get Sportello’s good friend walking us through the set-up. She has nothing to do with the actual story, but serves as a good character reference for Sportello and a handful of the supporting cast. It is new, Joanna Newsom has a dreamy voice that works with the bizarre nature of Anderson’s picture and means that the audience never quite connects with Sportello, which is a large part of the charm of Anderson’s story. Little tweaks like this mean that we are allowed to take part in a movie, it could be argued we have seen many times before (the downside to the Noir genre is that it is hard to find new things to do with it), but still get a fresh take on the proceedings.
The other big change is that Sportello could be the least competent detective we have ever seen. He comes across as a watered down Wolverine, all wild hair but with the ferocity of a teddy bear. He stumbles over his words, usually high on a joint while questioning witnesses (one hilarious scene sees him offer condolences to a grieving sister after intaking laughing gas). He is the most awkward protagonist imaginable, his gestures always out of a place and his mannerisms so odd that no one can take him seriously. However, on reflection, maybe this is truer to the ultimate Noir hero than we have been given before. A Noir hero should be an outsider, someone that does the dirty jobs and no one respects. However, the great ones have always been handsome alpha males, like Sam Spade or Marlowe. Even Sin City’s hideous Marv had the Hollywood glamour about him. When the supporting cast talk about how much of a waste of time Sportello is, we believe them in a heartbeat, taking one look at him and dismissing his talents. He could have a 100% win rate with his cases and no one would give him the time of day. This, of course, gives Joaquin Phoenix, master-class acting legend, the role of a lifetime to have fun with. It is the kind of role that allows an actor to break every rule in the book. A tense showdown usually allows a Noir hero to utter a menacing, quotable line – Phoenix says something embarrassingly cringe-worthy. Anderson’s success comes from taking time in the story for little exchanges that hammer home the character. Chit-chat with a teenage drug mule, a confused expression during a duologue, screaming in horror at a baby picture – no matter how you leave this movie, Phoenix will probably the best thing about it, an actor tearing up the screen and showing us every trick in the book.
The reason I am still doubtful about how much you will like it, is because it is such an odd film that I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people left the cinema not caring for it much. Hell, I haven’t even decided if I liked it. Sure, it is a well-made film, the style colourful and the characters spot-on. It is an entertaining film, its sense of humour so wicked that you will have a blast watching it. It could have just done with… a story? And this is where the Anderson purists separate from the newbies, like myself. The lack of honest narrative is the point of Inherent Vice. Sportello drifts through the case, asking questions, shaking out vague answers and the movie ends up unravelling itself. Little detecting is actually done, which is a pet peeve of mine with the genre. The movie throws up conspiracies, new plot twists and hints at big showdowns with nasty, Swastika tattooed thugs, but never quite goes through with it. The last half an hour tidies everything up, without explaining anything. The point is probably to go back to the start of the movie and try to figure out what Sportello was hallucinating through drug use and what was real. As a result, the conspiracy is more of an excuse to tie this crazy world together, more concerned with having scenes dedicated to Josh Brolin being amazing as a by-the-books, true American cop or getting some laughs in with Martin Short. Inherent Vice is very good at what it does, but I am not quite sure what ‘it’ actually is.
Final Verdict: Amazingly directed and acting, highlighting all of the Noir traits I love, as well as adding a few of its own. But the story is an excuse, rather than a groundwork for the film, making the ending slightly lacklustre.
I have been going back and forth on watching this one… I have no idea, even now, if I want to invest the time. Meh.