2014. Rated R, 149 minutes.
Benicio del Toro
Michael K. Williams
I woke up early on Veteran's Day, a rare day off from both work and parental errands. Yes, I wrote this a month ago. Anyhoo, with everyone still asleep I decided to watch Inherent Vice. About halfway through, Mrs. Dell wanders into the living room. Twenty minutes later, she can't make heads or tails of it. She says, "What is this mess," and sorta checks out. By that I mean, she gets breakfast, returns with it to the couch, and opens up her laptop, keeping one eye on Facebook and the other on the movie. A few more times before it ends, she mentions how crazy it is before concluding with "I forget you love kooky movies like this." Me? I kept my eyes glued to the screen and a permagrin on my face as the brilliant nuttiness unfolded.
The plot revolves around Doc Sportello (Phoenix), a private eye who may or may not also be an actual doctor. That part isn't quite clear to me. It's never directly addressed, but he does operate out of a doctor's office. That's really neither here nor there. More importantly, it's 1970 and our hero's diet consist mostly of mary jane. One night, his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston) wanders into his house asking for help keeping her current boyfriend from getting abducted and committed to an insane asylum. It so happens that her boyfriend happens to be a very wealthy and married real estate mogul known as The Wolfman (Roberts). The person Shasta says is arranging all this is his wife. Wanting to help out a girl he's still in love with, Doc journeys down a very deep and bizarre rabbit hole.
Not giving your full attention to Inherent Vice for a minute or two puts one at risk for being totally lost. At the very least, you'll find yourself with some catching up to do because so much is going on. New characters are constantly introduced and most of them bring a backstory of some sort with them into the film. These backstories also alter Doc's experiences, perceptions, and plans. It does feel incoherent, at times, and I wouldn't blame anyone who dismissed it for being all over the place. However, it's not really incoherent, just well choreographed mayhem; a twisty turny affair that leads its protagonist down some strange, drug fueled and sexually charged corridors.
Joaquin Phoenix heads up the cast and turns in an amazing performance. He gives us a man we know is very smart, but operating under the dense fog of both his drug of choice and the ever-spiraling situation he's trying to figure out. He is as bewildered as we are about where all this is going. This is a good thing, especially as a contrast to all of the one hundred percent predictable pictures out there. Phoenix perfectly displays this in a way reminiscent of Jeff Bridges's work in The Big Lebowski. His Doc is a combination that film's The Dude and Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes from Chinatown.
The Chinatown comparison brings to mind something I thought fairly early while watching, but wasn't completely sure of until later. Inherent Vice is a full-on film noir, or neo-noir, if you must. This helps explain why all the shenanigans. Any noir worth its tantalizing dame includes a lot of unforeseen changes in direction. IV certainly has that. All of the genre tropes are present, as well, except for the gloomy lighting. There is occasionally some nice use of shadows, particularly in the scene that introduces us to Owen Wilson's character. For the most part, though, this is one of the most brightly lit noirs you'll come across. Being set in sunny California and utilizing mostly daytime scenes will do that.
I've already spoke about Phoenix's great work and let it slip that Owen Wilson has a role, but hadn't said anything about the rest of the cast. They turned in uniformly outstanding work. A few of them have large roles. This includes Wilson who turns in his best work in years, if not his entire career. That intro scene I mentioned is better than anything I've ever seen him do. Also showing signs of rejuvenation is Josh Brolin, playing a cop known as "Bigfoot." He has an odd love/hate relationship with Doc that runs through the film's veins. That he is described as a walking civil rights violation is all you need to know about him.
The balance of the cast is made up of bit parts and cameos as Doc maneuvers his way through the film. Nearly every one of them is expertly done, often to hilarious effect. In fact, there is a current of dark humor running throughout the film. Of the more known performers in this group, the big winner is a genuinely creepy and funny Martin Short. If Owen Wilson is doing some of his best work then Short is putting the rest of his own career to shame. It should be noted that I generally have no use for Short, so the fact I love him here is quite impressive. Of the unknowns in the cast, that big winner is a woman who's face we never see. It's Delaina Mitchell, who plays Bigfoot's wife. We see her from the torso down and she delivers an explosive tirade that lasts about a minute. In a movie inundated with all manner of zaniness, this rather straightforward moment is one of its most memorable and telling. My only qualms with the acting is that the underrated Maya Rudolph doesn't have a bigger role. She is totally wasted as Doc's secretary. And she's the wife of the director, so go figure.
That director, Paul Thomas Anderson is still to be commended. He reigns in what could easily have been an unwieldy beast. There really are no subplots. Everything is directly related to the main story. However, there are so many strands it looks like a badly frayed garment, at first glance. Upon closer inspection, we see that it is an intricately designed tapestry of exotic fabrics. IV feels like it will hold up much better than a number of his other films for a couple of reasons. First, it warrants multiple viewings just to get it all. Second, perhaps the thing that will make us want to watch it a few times over, it fixes something that plagues movies of his like The Master and There Will Be Blood. While those are great films, the pacing in both is a bit clunky. They plod along as one character or another delivers bombastic and/or self-righteous dialogue. Here, the dialogue sizzles and the movie zips along. Therefore, it feels quite a bit shorter than its two-and-a-half hour runtime. It's a return to the style that made his Boogie Nights such a fun ride with similar, if not better, results.