Inherent Vice review

This feature adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’Inherent Vice begins with a pretty classic film noir set-up but takes off in a number of very unusual directions from there on out.

In the Gordita Beach, California of 1970, Private Eye Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by his long estranged ex-girlfriend. She’s bringing him a case to solve. Rich property tycoon, Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) has gone missing and while. Wolfmann’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover (Andrew Simpson) may be behind this, so may the feds.

Pretty soon, the ex-girlfriend goes missing too and Doc’s investigation begins to broaden and encompass other linked cases. He’s also frame for a murder, and is constantly hounded by his nemesis and polar opposite, Detective Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

This plotting may seem familiar from the kind of crime fiction, both in novels and film, that were particularly popular in the 1940s, but everything here has temporal and spatial specificity. Doc is very much the stoner hippie, and those who judge him harshly do so because of this; his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) is a positively ethereal flower child. The film is so jam-packed full of 1970s cultural signifiers and touchstones that it very nearly tips into parody at times.

One early sequence, with Bigfoot donning an afro wig and pretending to be hip in order to sell real estate, demonstrates director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s restraint. He could, but doesn’t, step right out into Austin Powers territory.

Not to say Anderson isn’t interesting in finding humour in his set-up, with a number of amusing sequences built around Doc’s dedication to being so high and how it effects his attitude and impairs his detective work.

Whilst everything in Inherent Vice is presented as part of a coherent whole there is a sense that the film is sometimes drifting in and out of reality and lucidity. Events occur that don’t quite seem possible and minor details, such as recurring props, clue us in to the subjectivity of what’s on display. We’ve sent to experience this journey with Doc and see it through the same foggy haze.

Phoenix is superb as the stoned private dick, managing to convince as a character that could so easily have slipped into simple caricature. As the film reaches its climax, it’s clear that Doc has been revealed as emotionally complex, and we would certainly not believe this so easily without Phoenix having established him as such a ‘real person’.

And Phoenix’s comic timing and ability to sell a joke help the film too, even when the other filmmakers don’t back him up. For instance, one moment where Doc reacts to a photo of a heroin ravaged baby is made funny through Phoenix’s physical reactions, but then undercut somewhat by the way it’s all being presented on screen.

It goes like this. Doc is handed the photo by, Hope (Jena Malone), and the camera stays on her as she continues talking, before cutting to Phoenix far too late. And then there’s another beat before he reacts. This is perhaps in keeping with Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit‘s choice of a laconic style, and editor Leslie Jones‘ well-proven reluctance to cut too quickly, but when it comes to servicing this scene, it’s very much a mishandling.

Anderson’s approach does yield better results elsewhere and the film has a handful of excellent scenes, including one truly remarkable sequence – the film’s finest by a long way – in which Shasta seduces-tortures Doc as he sits motionless. The scene climaxes, with… well, a climax but this is preceded with a sudden physical explosion from Doc, all of it played in one long take for the discomfort and tension this can bring. Waterston’s performance in the scene is deeply affecting, and as the camera finally comes to rest on her face, Shasta’s fragility is writ large.

But sadly, this scene might pack a punch in its own right but it adds little to the bigger picture, adding just a little minor shading to these two characters.

Much of Inherent Vice will drift by and not get under your skin. It’s an interesting experiment from Anderson perhaps, as were There Will be Blood and The Master, but it’s far from the complete, meaningful construction of films such as Magnolia and the excellent Boogie Nights.

Inherent Vice is in UK cinemas now.