Film Review – Inherent Vice (2015)


Few filmmakers have Paul Thomas Anderson’s ability to excite Pseuds Corner-bothering adulation from moviegoers and commentators with the degree of consistency he has shown over recent years. Given his near-perfect track record, if a new movie by the director of There Will Be Blood, The Master and Magnolia ever fails to stamp its authority on cinemas with the sort of influence that Anderson has generated for himself, there will have been a fundamental sea-change in the makeup of modern cinema.

Inherent Vice is an adaptation of the famously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon’s novel; the first time the writer has allowed his material to be adapted for the screen. Making its debut in the USA late last year, the film has been met with much of the usual critical praise afforded to Anderson’s releases, but with an undercurrent of discord. Has Anderson’s oblique style and penchant for mood over narrative thrust undermined his latest film to such a degree? In many ways Inherent Vice is a P.T. Anderson film for P.T. Anderson fans. A vaporous haze of uncertainty hangs over much of its story and its ambiguity is unlikely to win over any new fans; but its tone is as strange, mesmeric and funny as any film he has previously made.

Set in the early 1970’s, Inherent Vice exists in a world, or perhaps even a stupor, in which the hippie ideals of peace and love are dead or dying; crooked property developers are setting up shop across L.A. and the ever-present threat of Communism-inspired paranoia looms large over hearts and minds.

Pot-head hippie Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator living beach-side in California when his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) drops by unannounced, asking him to help her foil a plot to kidnap her lover, the rich tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc’s investigation, which leads him to a missing saxophonist, neo-Nazis and a shady cabal known as the Golden Fang, plays out in a non-too-coherent, dope-addled fashion. As Doc stumbles lacklustre from one mess to the next you feel he’s being swept along for the ride, rather than paddling his own canoe. Certainly there are portions of Inherent Vice where, as a viewer, you feel as much in the dark as Doc.

Anderson’s aim is, I think, to present a kind of stoner-noir that seeks, not to wrong-foot its audience, but to parachute it into its lead character’s psyche. We see the world refracted through Doc’s pot-stained brained, keeping us unsure of even the most basic of facts, taking on that trip as he digs a little deeper. This approach is destined to alienate a sizeable chunk of the audience and Pynchon is not a man known for his simplicity, but Inherent Vice strikes me more as an exercise in mood-making, a wacked-out tone poem of drugs, betrayal and dubious morals.

If the narrative is elusive then Joaquin Phoenix is positively screwy and, should audiences get little else from Inherent Vice, then his two and a half hours of joint smoking, misperception and folly is fantastically fun. Inherent Vice will cause a few people, not least myself, to scratch their heads at times, but if you can embrace its puzzling sensibility there’s definitely a hell of a lot to admire and enjoy.

Chris Banks

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama Distributor: Warner Bros Release Date: 30th January 2015 (UK) Rating: 15 Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Cast:Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Jordan Christian Hearn, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson