For me the movie Inherent Vice is a tale of two artists. First, there’s Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who probably does not get the credit he deserves in the mainstream, most likely due to his off screen persona, which can at best be described as eccentric. I’m guilty of this as well, for even though I am consistently impressed with his performances, I’m not typically compelled to run right out and experience his films in the theatre. The other artist is Paul Thomas Anderson, who probably gets a little too much credit. There is brilliance in his films without a doubt, but his tendency towards long windedness and strolling tangents almost makes it feel like he’s daring you to hang around for the point. The trailer for Inherent Vice is a juicy morsel on a shiny hook and despite my better judgment, I took that bait and ran.
Inherent Vice is set in the post-Manson Era early 70s and tells the story-A story, really- of Doc (Phoenix), an unlicensed Southern California private eye who actually works out of a doctor’s office, because why wouldn’t he? His name is Doc, get it? Doc gets caught up in a kidnapping and extortion caper when his ex old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston, who manages to stand out in the middle of an outstanding cast) unexpectedly drops in to tell him she’s mixed up with some bad people conspiring to bilk her real estate magnate boyfriend of his millions. Once Shasta goes missing, Doc is compelled to delve deeply in to a world of drugs, bikers, cults and maritime law to try to find out what’s come of the girl. Along the way he meets all form of colorful characters all too willing to play along with Doc’s investigation. From Josh Brolin as a broken and disturbed cop to Owen Wilson as a deep cover snitch just trying to find his way back to the life he used to know, Doc makes his way through player after maddening player on his voyage of discovery.
If I were to shoehorn Inherent Vice into a genre, I suppose Stoner Noir would be as good a term as any. The whole movie plays out like a hazy high, the main character and everything around him flitting around like a goldfish. Nothing ultimately really seems to be of a great deal of importance as mysteries and subplots are quickly resolved or dismissed outright. For the most part that’s okay, because the film itself is beautiful and the performances are often ham-fisted and meaty enough to propel what little story there is forward. But at a length of over two hours the lack of commitment to anything starts to wear on you and you can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a great movie somewhere within that, which just forgot to leave it’s unnecessary appendix on the operating room floor. That’s a fancy way of saying that this film is too long. It drags and drags at points, and since much of it doesn’t feel integral to the main story (whatever that is) it’s almost insulting to have to sit through it.
Then Anderson hits you with scenes that simply blow your mind and it largely redeems itself. There are moments of truth-often ugly truth-that are so powerful and almost out of place in this movie that you find yourself contemplating them while the film keeps ambling along. That’s really the thing about Anderson. His work has a way of finding its way into your subconscious only to rise up and needle at you after the fact. It’s thought provoking in a way that others can only hope to be. That’s where I found myself the next day as I rolled it over in my mind. Simultaneously loving and hating this film, and that’s a reaction worth paying for, I suppose.
I still think this movie was too long. Too much like a director’s cut. But there is salvation within. Tighter, paced and more focused, it could have been a great and funny mystery, but I’m not even sure it wanted to be that. I think it maybe just wanted be a story that contains ideas about what love and power are to different people. What drives and motivates them. About what makes some people happy and some people sad and how sometimes those are the same things. I think this movie aspired to be a great commentary, but maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe it’s just a stoner comedy set around a pointless mystery. Either way, the sum of its parts are pretty good.