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Inherent Vice Movie Review

Inherent Vice (2014) movie poster Inherent Vice

Theatrical Release: December 12, 2014 / Running Time: 149 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson / Writers: Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay), Thomas Pynchon (novel)

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Larry "Doc" Sportello), Josh Brolin (Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen), Owen Wilson (Coy Harlingen), Katherine Waterston (Shasta Fay Hepworth), Reese Witherspoon (Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball), Benicio Del Toro (Sauncho Smilax, Esq.), Jena Malone (Hope Harlingen), Maya Rudolph (Petunia Leeway), Martin Short (Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S.), Joanna Newsom (Sortilθge), Eric Roberts (Michael Z. "Mickey" Wolfmann), Hong Chau (Jade), Michael Kenneth Williams (Tariq Khalil), Martin Donovan (Crocker Fenway), Sasha Pieterse (Japonica Fenway), Jordan Christian Hearn (Denis), Jillian Bell (Chlorinda)


Somewhere in between There Will Be Blood and The Master, the arrival of a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie became an event for cineastes. A long time coming, The Master opened to near-universal critical acclaim. Though revered by many, the drama did not, however, strongly connect with moviegoers as a whole. That is one explanation for how it went from certain major Academy Awards contender to a film with three fruitless acting Oscar nominations.

One could deduce from such a reception that The Master was merely a showcase for strong acting and as an overall film, flawed. But that would not be doing that film and its ambitious writer-director justice.

Anderson delivers his quickest follow-up effort this century on Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel of the same name. Between the virtuoso at the helm, the deeply talented cast he was likely able to assemble effortlessly, and Warner Bros. scheduling it just as they did last year's much-heralded Joaquin Phoenix movie, Inherent Vice looked like a promising vessel for earning the major recognition for which Anderson is so clearly destined. But then, word came out of the New York Film Festival that in recent years has become a launchpad for successful Oscar campaigns that this was no Oscar movie. This time, we won't be able to blame timing, a marketing campaign, or a distributor pinning its award season hopes on surer things (as The Weinstein Company could be accused of in the same year of Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook). Inherent Vice will definitely not be the Academy's cup of tea, but you can easily argue that it shouldn't be, not because it doesn't fit the narrow traditional Oscar mold of inspirational true stories set in the distant past, but because Inherent Vice is kind of a mess.

Set in 1970 Los Angeles, the film opens with "doper" and licensed PI Larry "Doc" Sportello (Phoenix) being visited by ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She has been seeing a married man whose wife and her extramarital boyfriend have been planning to pull a fast one over on him. A man made wealthy in real estate development, the husband has gone missing and has had his sanity questioned. Meanwhile, Doc is also approached by an ex-con looking to settle a score with a Nazi/Aryan who has yet to make good on a deal they arranged while in prison together. The Nazi is an associate of Shasta's missing man. But, you know what? There is almost no value in trying to synopsize the plot in detail.

Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) take a phone call together in "Inherent Vice."

Suffice it to say, the severely mutton-chopped Doc goes investigating various threads in between his habitual use of recreation drugs. His work gets him brought in as a suspect by "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a flat-topped police detective who's a proud violator of civil rights. With help from a lawyer friend (Benicio Del Toro), Doc is soon released, set free to pursue other leads, such as the disappearance of a musician who also may be a police informant (Owen Wilson). Shasta too goes missing and we gather that this could be the biggest concern of Doc, who doesn't seem altogether over her.

The private and celebrated Pynchon has only been adapted for film once before: a super-obscure 2002 German language filming of his most-praised novel, Gravity's Rainbow. After seeing Inherent Vice without having read a single word by the author, I feel safe in assuming that Hollywood's reluctance to adapt Pynchon's novels might be well-founded. Inherent Vice's story is all over the place. Characters come and go, few of them appearing in more than two scenes. Our one constant is Doc, a hippie antihero clinging to a counterculture that seems to be in the process of disappearing.

If anyone could make Pynchon's novel fly on screen, you have to assume it's Anderson. This is the guy who turned Upton Sinclair's Oil! into the masterful There Will Be Blood and who has riveted with beautifully strange films like Punch-Drunk Love and Magnolia. Even so, the task of turning Inherent Vice into something compelling and coherent somewhat eludes this unique, superb filmmaker. The film is too much of a wild goose chase, a series of scenes that seem almost unrelated to one another. One minute, Doc is flipping off a pair of federal agents. The next, he's doing cocaine with a dentist connected to a drug cartel. There's little joy to be had in connecting all the dots because many of them don't even seem to connect and the ones that do hardly matter, anyway.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) consults his current girlfriend, Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), regarding the disappearance of his ex. Martin Short reveals a new side of himself in the role of cocaine-sniffing dentist Rudy Blatnoyd.

No one has ever accused Anderson of being a populist filmmaker; his personal top-grosser, 2007 Best Picture nominee and Actor winner Blood, looks like a fluke. While in the past, the director has defied conventionality for the sake of art, here he comes across as deliberately difficult. The film's tone, focus, and crux all seem to change repeatedly throughout the patience-taxing 149-minute runtime.
As the mystery at hand grows cloudier, its appeal grows thin. Phoenix may commit to the character who is the film's glue, but his protagonist lacks the layers and complexity to truly appreciate accompanying him on this bizarre, meandering odyssey.

There are some funny moments and some nice turns from actors who haven't before worked with Anderson, including Brolin, Del Toro, Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and Eric Roberts. In the end, though, our inability to identify with the story hinders our enjoyment, no matter how well the movie can recreate the era and compose a frame.

Though they challenged general moviegoers, The Master and Her will seem downright accessible compared to this film, which seems unlikely to attract Anderson's usual critical favor to appeal to the cultured film buff. As for awards, even Musical or Comedy designation for the Golden Globes and one or two standout supporting performers (Brolin and Waterston) seem unlikely to push this into anything but fringe ceremonies.

Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson: The Master • There Will Be Blood
Joaquin Phoenix: Her • The Village • Ladder 49 | Josh Brolin: Labor Day • No Country for Old Men • Men in Black 3
Owen Wilson: Bottle Rocket • Are You Here | Benicio Del Toro: Traffic • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Martin Short: Father of the Bride & Father of the Bride Part II • The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Reese Witherspoon: Devil's Knot • How Do You Know | Jena Malone: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Katherine Waterston: The Factory | 1970s: American Hustle • Zodiac
2014 Movies: Gone Girl • Nightcrawler • Fury • Birdman • St. Vincent

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Reviewed December 12, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2014 Warner Bros. Pictures, Iac Films, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Joanne Sellar, Ghoulardi Film Company.
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