There are few filmmakers out there with a style as well-crafted as Paul Thomas Anderson. Making everything from Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the more recent The Master, he has proven to be incredibly consistent with his ability to tell a story. Not only is he an outstanding director, but he has the special talent that allows him to also communicate the essence of character in the form of a screenplay unlike anybody else. Given that he has yet to win an Academy Award, most movie aficionados would agree that it's about time that he should receive the golden statue. However, his newest feature simply shouldn't be the one that pushes him to do it. Inherent Vice is a polarizing film that will surely split audiences right down the middle. It's certainly not for everybody.
Taking place in the year 1970, Los Angeles detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) begins investigating the disappearance of a former girlfriend. With the "square" authoritative figure, Lt. Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) on his tail, he must learn to cover his tracks and fight against alleged suspicions. However, not everything is as it seems, as this mystery takes several odd twists and turns, leaving Doc in a whirlwind of chaos.
Even though Inherent Vice may have several plots that intertwine, this is very much a character film within the context of society in 1970. Doc is included in what was known as the "hippy" culture at the time. Anderson's screenplay, which is actually based off of a novel by Thomas Pynchon, puts this comedic crime mystery within the framework of the juxtaposition of "hippies versus the squares." This is particularly prevalent in the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot, as they are the epitome of each group, respectively. They're supposed to absolutely despise one another, but they discover that they actually need the other in order to solve this mystery. Yet, at the same time, they provide the majority of the film's humor. They're complete opposites that are constantly fighting over the other's lifestyle and personality, even in the most inappropriate of situations, making for some good independent laughs throughout the film's duration. Nevertheless, this is an ensemble of intriguing characters that we would like to learn more about. The over-the-top nature of the entire picture permeates from the characters outwards. It's clear that Paul Thomas Anderson is taking us on this journey from the perspective of Doc, which provides a lens that will make or break the film for most viewers.
Upon your first viewing, there's plenty to be puzzled about. Inherent Vice is all over the place, as it twists and turns in dozens of directions at the same time. Fans will certainly find a lot of replay value here in order to discover more about the plot and its characters, but this just isn't something that I would like to watch a second time. The intentional confusion only works for so long, and then it becomes aggravating. Fortunately, the tone remains consistent throughout the entire film, as it employs some dark humor in its attempt to build upon its insanity. If anything, Paul Thomas Anderson successfully puts us within the mindset of Doc, but it just isn't a place that I wanted to be in for 2 hours and 30 minutes. It's so all over the place, that it gets to a point where some audiences will find themselves caring less and less about the ongoings of the plot. It's at this moment that the picture becomes repetitive in its attempts to create humor, shock, and intrigue. Forget the disappearance of Doc's former girlfriend, following this film is a mystery of its own.
It isn't that Inherent Vice is paced too slowly, but the growing disinterest makes for some incredibly obvious "lulls" that the film simply isn't able to recover from. There isn't necessarily any moment of boredom, but it really doesn't do very much to captivate. The feature's love for itself simply isn't infectious, but is a detractor that sucks the life out of the picture. By the time that the third act is underway, we've had more than enough. While the characters remain intriguing, they aren't enough to save a plot that never manages to draw audiences in. There's plenty of symbolism to be found throughout the duration, although a large majority of it feels useless. Paul Thomas Anderson seems so incredibly concerned about this being as over-the-top as possible, that it lacks the element of humanity that would elevate the film's more intimate moments.
Having worked together on The Master, it's quite clear what to expect from Joaquin Phoenix as Larry "Doc" Sportello. He does an exceptional job in the role, as he successfully delivers the more obvious humor, as well as the more subtle elements that the screenplay doesn't touch upon. There are small nuances in this portrayal that should have been more prevalent through the picture. However, Josh Brolin steals the spotlight in the role of Lt. Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. He's outrageously funny throughout, offering some of the best moments to be found in the entire picture. There are a lot of supporting roles that benefit the film, with the most special being Katherine Waterston as Doc's ex. She delivers a hypnotizing performance that intrigues, but also instills a sense of doubt and caution in the audience. This is an excellent ensemble of performances.
When it comes to the atmosphere, Paul Thomas Anderson and co. deliver the time period to perfection. Everything about this film screams "1970," from the costumes to the production design. The film has a filter that makes it feel as if it's from that time period. It's grainy, a bit soft, and filled with imperfections, such as the occasional scratch, that make it feel so authentic. While the score is a bit underutilized, it works incredibly well with the overall tone that is being achieved. The cinematography is tremendous, as it depicts Doc's perspective in a brilliant fashion. When it comes to the visuals, Inherent Vice is a beautifully-crafted piece addition to Paul Thomas Anderson's collection.
This just might be the most polarizing film of the year. The style of storytelling will either work for you, or you won't be able to get out of the theater fast enough. I found myself in the latter category, as its incoherent story didn't captivate me in the slightest. While it offers intriguing characters and a strong message about culture in the 1970s, the screenplay is all over the place. Having not read the novel, this could be a fault of the source material, but it doesn't work on the big screen. Paul Thomas Anderson is a tremendously talented filmmaker with an exceptional library of work, but this can easily be considered his worst film to date. However, if it works for you, then more power to you. It'll be clear which side you'll be on by the end of the first act. Inherent Vice is an incoherent piece of storytelling that feels more like an endurance test. Rent it, even if only to see which side of the fence you land on.