I consider Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the best directors in the industry today. In the early days of this blog I reviewed his first film “Hard Eight” and I said in the review that we could see the shine of the things to come in that movie. “Inherent Vice” is the last movie of the master and I think that he didn’t quite reach his previous standards. “Inherent Vice” is an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, which is also very incoherent and difficult to follow. Placed in the seventies in the middle of Cold War America and after Manson massacre, when hippies weren’t the most popular people in LA community. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of them, but he is also a private investigator. That conflict will develop the story of “Inherent Vice” and in all his turbulences Doc will remain true to moral principles inherent to him almost as his vices.
The movie begins same as the book, with his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katerine Waterston) coming to his house. She asks him to help her with conspiracy theory connected with a wealthy construction developer Mickey (Eric Roberts). First, Doc promises her to help but quickly dismisses her case as not important. When Shasta disappears, very soon after their meeting, guilt will propel Doc into the case and he’ll try to do his best to make amends. The mess he will get himself into is enormous. During the film he will be a murder suspect, a snitch (sort of), a private detective for a different client, friend, lover or enemy of all sorts of people. “Groovy” atmosphere of the seventies did get a darker shade here with strong conflicts of opinion between hippies and police (order and disorder) and disappointment with the government is something that is seen in almost every step that Sportello takes.
Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Eric Roberts and Owen Wilson completed the acting ensemble and cherry on the top of it is Michael Kenneth Williams (“Wire”, “Boardwalk Empire”) in his brief and sweet role of Tariq. In “Inherent Vice”, vice is inherent not only to Doc, but to all people he comes in contact with. Even “Bigfoot”, tough police officer has his own vices. In one of the last scenes of the movie he admits that he came to Doc’s house after long hours of civil-rights abuse, and with that sentence he rounds up the picture of a tough police guy who is underneath all of that the same kind of emotional hippie scum as Doc. That’s probably the reason why they do so well together. There is nothing hidden in, “Inherent Vice” partly because Doc is almost all the time on some kind of drug or psychedelic. That fact fits in with non-existing dynamic of the movie in which the plot is kind a redundant. The film asks for a lot of attention and everything (especially plot) seemed lost in all around tripping and conspiracies. The film is made to cause paranoia on a stoner. When I was reading the book I asked myself how the hell will they transfer to the screen that level of incoherence because even as text the story of “Inherent Vice” wasn’t easy to follow. The film is much less narrative media than the book and the possibility of making that book into a movie which will have its head and tail didn’t seem likely to me. However, I was curious. If anybody can pull that through Paul Thomas Anderson seemed like a likely bet.
Doc’s narrative thought, which worked so well within the book here was replaced by Shasta voice-over. I found that extremely irritating since her voice was in clear contradiction with the events on the screen. Shasta in the book was a girl from a tough background and she knew how to manipulate people into what she wanted, she was a tough nut to crack and her relationship with Doc was very dependable (from both sides). Katerine Waterston just doesn’t have the face or diction for that kind of role. I imagined Shasta as nicer and cuter version of Gemma from Sons of Anarchy, more sexy and manipulative, but also tough when she needs to be. If Doc was the narrator of the story instead of Shasta maybe Katerine Waterston would function in the movie. Like this, she left the impression of cute lost lamb who is manipulated to some extent, but didn’t have the courage nor resolve to see her own schemes to the very end. She looked like a damsel in distress. I had a problem with that. Shasta isn’t that kind of character. In the scenes where we can see pieces of her tough self, Katerine Waterston just didn’t function, and her (bit boring) narration slowed down movie which was slow at its own pace to begin with. We see Doc on the screen and we hear Shasta’s voice-over. Shasta, who’s supposed to be missing and one of the biggest mysteries of the movie should be her own fate. Spoiler within the plot. I was extremely irritated with it.
In the end, I will conclude that Paul Thomas Anderson had extremely difficult material to work with. The book seemed to me like a flow of conciseness more than anything else. It’s not an easy job to transfer that flow to the screen. Period, costumes and scenography were wonderful and particularly interesting was the way of thinking regarding hippies after Charles Manson massacre. However, in spite of the great performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in the first place, “Inherent Vice” is more the psychedelic road-trip with a bit of mystery that full blooded detective or crime story. Its plot in scattered, characters incoherent and resolution shaky. Some things can function within the text (introspections of the main character) but here they are replaced with weak and no so convincing narration by one of the key characters in the story, creating a spoiler by itself. “Inherent Vice” is nominated for “Oscar” in “Best writing, adapted screenplay” and “Costume design achievement” categories. In the second, I will sincerely consider “Inherent Vice” as a legitimate candidate for the award, but in the first not so much. There were better stories among the adapted nominees this year.
“Inherent Vice” is a solid, funny movie. Possibly even funnier if you’re stoned during the incoherent storytelling. However, in comparison to the earlier films of the PTA, “Inherent Vice” isn’t as good. But it’s recommended watching for those who want a feeling of groovy seventies and whole nostalgia package that comes with that, so often romanticized, decade.