Inherent Vice Review: Everything is Not Groovy


At one point in the frenetic, frenzied, two and a half hour smoke screen that is Inherent Vice, our heroine Doc Sportello says to another character “What’s Inherent Vice?”

“I don’t know” they reply: and did Doc Sportello care to find out what it meant? No, and neither should we.

Inherent Vice is Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature film; a filmmaker renowned as one of America’s great auteurs – he can create vivid characters, rich and moving storylines: Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood, The Master prove that. So it’s no surprise when people say Anderson can never put a foot wrong, and I thought that too, until now.

Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name (an author whose novels are deemed ‘un-filmable’) Inherent Vice is a dizzying, drug fuelled, and comedic tale of 70s’ paranoia and the struggle for happiness in a period where people were quite happy to hit on any drug they could get their hands on, while sharing to a group of fellow dopers their nonsensical conspiracy theories to evoke the Charles Manson fear that they are currently wallowing in as he stands trial. These dopers seem quite happy to do this rather than actually settling down with a family and getting a respectable job. The same could be said for Inherent Vice. It isn’t worried about settling down and telling a coherent story — it wants to create a mood and atmosphere. However, Anderson doesn’t make that obvious, and if only people knew that when going to see it, because Inherent Vice is a film that contradicts itself continuously, and makes you believe that your IQ is that of a toad.

Right from the start we are thrown into the paranoid hippie world of private eye, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who receives a visit from his “ex old lady” Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Shasta tells Sportello that she’s been seeing a millionaire property developer called Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) whose wife is plotting a kidnap/murder/con scheme against him, which she is now involved in, and wants Doc’s help. She tells him he won’t be able to find her (which baffles him) and quickly leaves. Soon his bafflement turns into worry when, the next day, he is asked by a “black guerrilla family” ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams) to find an Aryan brotherhood thug who is a bodyguard for Micky Wolfmann. Sportello quickly sets out to find the millionaire property developer as he is worried Shasta could mixing with some seriously dangerous thugs.

At this point in the film you begin to recall all what people have said about the plot being incomprehensible and impossible to follow: you begin to feel that you’re the smartest in the room as you follow the plot with ease; however, when Sportello reaches Wolfmann’s building site (the first place Sportello goes to look for Wolfmann) which has a mysterious massage parlour inside its complex, it’s like the cinema has snuck in some kind of hallucinatory drug as Sportello and the audience are suddenly thrust into a world where everyone is talking at great length about what is happening in the plot, even though none of it actually makes any sense.

Sportello begins to believe that Shasta is in danger as some kind of criminal syndicate called the ‘Golden Fang’ is behind all this, which leads him to drift through barrages of bizarre situations and surreal characters ranging from a tax dodging, money laundering, drug dealing dentist (Martin Short), neo-Nazis, a heroin addict who is in a hippie band who, may or may not be working for the cops (Owen Wilson), dodgy FBI agents, and a flat top mean-as-a-pack-of-wolves cop (Josh Brolin). It’s not easy for Sportello to piece all these leads and clues together, as his constant drug fuelled haze makes it difficult for him to fully grasp what’s going on.

In fact the whole cast is in some kind of drug-induced state, but you never get a sense that this is used as anything other than an excuse to complicate the plot. These characters never seem to have any kind of comedy spawn from their drugged out states, or any kind of amusing misunderstandings. Instead of being this fun, hazy romp, the drugs are just used to heighten the characters’ paranoia so that everything seems ten times more dangerous than it actually is. It’s not a bad idea, but when it is used continuously you start to get the feeling that the whole story – if you can call it that – is one huge red herring. Subsequently, it fools the audience into thinking it is a complex tale of corruption.

All the characters do is talk about the plot, hardly any line of dialogue is not about it – it misleads the audience into thinking it’s a completely different film. The characters spout out random names and facts that have crept up out of nowhere. It’s like you’ve been on a toilet break and have missed a vital scene. I know the film is impossible to follow on purpose, and you should let it ‘wash over you’ but it wouldn’t be hard to do that if the film had more of a playful nature that at least developed some of the many character relationships in this film. Since it doesn’t do any of that, it just feels like an over-blown detective story with an inconsistent tone, ultimately making you feel nothing for it. It’s ironic because all the film wants to do is make you ‘feel.’  Inherent Vice just can’t make its own mind up, it’s like a 70s’ game of Guess Who? “Are you a detective story? Are you a pulp comedy?” You can’t help but draw comparisons with Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep; that plot was so confusing that not even Chandler knew what was going on!

Impossible to follow plots have their own way of telling a story. They focus on characters and relationships; the ambiguous plot is usually a metaphor for their flaws e.g David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Dianna a young movie star comes to Hollywood to willful her dreams, however, she is really in a dream, she isn’t even that talented. So, yes, the plot made little sense, but it made a connection to the character and made you ‘feel.’ Inherent Vice doesn’t do that.

It’s a shame because the person the plot hinges around – Shasta – is only in the film for ten minutes, but you get a sense of both her and Sportello’s characters in those small and effective scenes.  It’s a shame the film couldn’t explore that more because only right at the end of the film do you fully realize what Sportello really wants, but the rambling detective story masks it.

The Shasta/Sportello relationship is also heightened by the screen-grabbing acting of relative newcomer, Katherine Waterston. Her performance perfectly matches the way her character pops in like a surreal day dream.  She isn’t the only one who dominates the screen though; Joaquin Phoenix fully deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, of which he is in almost every frame of. Phoenix plays Doc Sportello with a comedic bafflement that is suited to the wacked out, crazy nature of the characters he comes across.

The ensemble of bizarre characters is played excellently by the rest of the cast: the highlights are Martin Short, who really carries off the drug peddling dentist, Rudy Blatnoyd, with a charismatic kick of adrenaline just as the film was petering. Josh Brolin is another highlight, his no-nonsense cop routine has a good chemistry with Sportello, who he hates with a passion.

If you’re going to see Inherent Vice for one thing only, it would be the soundtrack and the scenery. It’s beautifully directed by Anderson, he clearly has a love and intimate knowledge of this era as he doesn’t show the bits of California you always see in movies like Hollywood and palm trees; he uses clever set designs, and has a good use of sandy and pastel colors to heighten immersion. The choices of music and composer Johnny Greenwood do also add to the immersion of this era even if the story can’t do that.

Even though this is a very faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s impenetrable novel – which will be worth seeing for fans of the novel – it just feels like a different angle to the story would have provided more laughs and an actual message, because for all its talent on and off screen, Inherent Vices smoke-screen is hiding too much I’m afraid.