Inherent Vice – film review

Inherent Vice (2014)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Reese Witherspoon

Release date: Now playing

Running Time: 149 minutes


Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film is a head scratcher, says Louder Than War’s Jamie Havlin, but it’s also not without its merits. Find out why the film’s had audiences walking out in droves – and also why it may become a cult classic – by reading on.

Unlike Bill Clinton I’m perfectly happy to admit I have inhaled a joint and watching Inherent Vice I sometimes felt like I’d been smoking some particularly strong grass just before entering my local Cineworld.

Inherent Vice is at times disorientating and hard to follow, a surreal and psychedelic shaggy-dog story based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon, a reclusive American writer whose fiction is routinely described as impenetrable and complex.

The film takes place at the fag end of the counterculture dream and stars Joaquin Phoenix, with a spectacular set of mutton chop sideburns, as dope smokin’, coke snortin’ Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, an unconventional Californian private dick who, at the behest of former squeeze Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), attempts to prevent a billionaire property tycoon (her latest flame) being abducted and committed to a nearby asylum.

Joining Phoenix and Waterston in a typically P.A. Anderson stellar ensemble cast are Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and Owen Wilson. Joanna Newsom plays a relatively minor role as flower child Sortilège, who doesn’t seem strictly essential to the plot but who still gets to narrate the movie in a new age, mumbo jumbo, dawning of the Age of Aquarius manner that provides a nice texture to proceedings without making much sense to this particular viewer.

Actually not much in the course of the film’s two and a half hours of screen time made total sense to me.

The byzantine plot deliberately has the feel of being made up on the spot, or else under the influence of a bong or two – and Anderson does mention the films of Cheech and Chong as a big influence on Inherent Vice. It also has a real noir feel to it; so think Up in Smoke meets Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye with a bit of Mulholland Drive and The Big Lebowski thrown in too.

There’s a very square cop, ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, who has a serious oral fixation and a major downer on Sportello; there’s a surf-rock saxophonist working undercover for the government, a pervy dentist who dresses like Austin Powers and there’s an ex-con black panther, white supremacist bikers and red herrings aplenty.

As for the mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, I’m still not sure whether it was a tax evasion dodge set up by local dentists or an international heroin cartel. Or maybe something else entirely.

I don’t expect that the screening I took in will be the only one where a few folk left before the end and if you feel the need for clarity and resolution in movies, then, as Doc might say, this isn’t one you’ll easily dig.

Inherent Vice is bit incoherent and inconsequential and, at times, a little self indulgent. It compares unfavourably with earlier Anderson films such as Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, but my advice is to ditch any attempt to follow the plot and instead just go with the flow.

There’s still plenty to enjoy. It is very funny at times. The performances are uniformly top-flight, the direction and cinematography generally excellent and Johnny Greenwood has contributed a masterly score recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that fits in perfectly with some inspired music choices from the era, including Minnie Ripperton’s glorious Les Fleur, Vitamin C by Can and Journey Through the Past by Neil Young.

Actually, if Inherent Vice was an LP of the period, rather than the consistent genius of Forever Changes or Trout Mask Replica, it would likely be a double album by some big West Coast act that failed to quite match up to expectations although some tracks are fondly remembered.



For the official Inherent Vice site go here:

For more on the film soundtrack, released by Nonesuch Records go here.

All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.

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