P.T Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a 70s crime caper with a lot to say for itself.
With a complexly layered story and a cast of just as layered and complex characters, Inherent Vice is a tantalisingly elaborate crime drama directed by the critically acclaimed Paul Thomas Anderson. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon, the film is set in the pouring sunshine of late 60s Los Angeles, where we’re introduced to Larry “Doc” Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix; a hippie and part-time dope head who keeps himself sober enough to hold down a steady job as a private investigator.
Doc is surrounded by an ensemble cast of colourful characters, including straight-laced detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by the stone-faced Josh Brolin; side-switching informant/rebellious hippie Coy Harlingen, played by Owen Wilson; and relative newcomer Katherine Waterson as Doc’s elusive and enigmatic ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth.
Other actors in the star-studded lineup include Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s attorney Sancho Smilax (who bears a distinct resemblance to Dr Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, another of Del Toro’s roles) and Reese Witherspoon as deputy district attorney, and Doc’s current squeeze, Penny Kimball.
The acting by the entire cast is stellar, with Phoenix a standout as the unassuming yet calculating Doc. It’s a monumental challenge to play the lead in a film which follows its main character as much as Inherent Vice does – Doc’s present in near every scene – but Phoenix does it wonderfully, slowly revealing just enough about the character and his motivations to keep him fresh and interesting throughout.
Josh Brolin shines as Doc’s part-time nemesis Bigfoot, his straight and serious performance and penchant for chocolate bananas deliver some of the best laughs of the movie. Owen Wilson, who in large doses can be painfully exasperating, is used just enough to play an interesting and likeable character in Coy Harlingen. Katherine Waterson is enjoyable as the mysterious Shasta, although her constant dreamy expression and soft speech do begin to wear a bit thin by the end of the film. But considering how central she is to the story, from a writing standpoint it would have made more sense to have given her a bit more range.
Most of Inherent Vice’s dialogue and plot is well written, save for a few overly verbose exchanges which tend to shake the film’s pacing and make it difficult to concentrate on what the characters are saying. Fortunately, there’s fairly spacious sections between each, so it doesn’t feel as if it’s bogged down with pointless wordplay for the sake of wordplay.
The film strongly aims to tell the story through the dialogue, and while you can follow along with what’s onscreen, the audience would need to hang off every word in order to have a full understanding of all the story’s nuances. This results in the lack of a definitive conclusion to the plotlines introduced earlier, but Inherent Vice feels like it’s trying to be purposefully subversive when it came to the finer details of the plot to draw more of a focus onto the characters and how they’re affected by the mystery more so than fixating on the mystery itself.
Visually, the film is subtly brilliant and the set design and costumes are a perfect representation of the time period, with fading hippie clothes signifying the end of the free love era, vibrantly coloured double breasted suits, and more simple and streamlined clothing worn by the films more conservative characters. You get a great sense of the characters from their clothing choices, and coupled with the minimalist but still identifiable 70s looking sets and buildings, it does a fantastic job in immersing the audience in the time period.
The sound, however, was somewhat of a mixed bag; the soundtrack was fantastic and featured great period and newly composed music which helped immensely with immersing yourself in the film, but the sound mixing was downright confusing at times. Music would play over the top of poorly levelled conversations, making it unable to discern what the characters were saying at times, and the few points of the film when the whispering between characters is almost inaudible. It’s disappointing that such a dialogue oriented film has points where you can’t hear the dialogue.
Inherent Vice may be one of the cleverest films of the year, but it’s sometimes too clever for its own good. A fantastic natural visual style and astounding performances by the ensemble cast make the film an enjoyable watch for all, but those who don’t give their full and undivided attention to the dialogue may find they’ve missed out on some key plot points. If you’re prepared to let the film completely envelop you, then Inherent Vice will prove to be a superbly fascinating piece of art. – Joseph Papandrea
Top photo is a screen grab from Inherent Vice’s trailer.