– by David Morgan-Brown
For just over two years since his latest film, the usually unprolific Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) has delivered in a short time for him a far different film from his last two lingering powerhouse works, There Will Be Blood and The Master, with something more chaotically slapped together with a hazy, yet lively style. I couldn’t even begin with explaining the basic set-up of the film, so I’ll let the trailer do that for me: “If it’s a quiet night out at the beach and your ex-old-lady suddenly shows up out of nowhere with a story about her current billionaire land developer boyfriend and his wife and her boyfriend and a plot to kidnap the billionaire and put him in a looney bin, maybe you should just look the other way.” Although you should be looking at Inherent Vice, and looking very, very hard.
It seems less important to talk about what the story is about but rather how the story is about. Good luck keeping up with it, as the film spews out plot details one after the other through long shots of characters hushly conversing, trying not to let the audience hear in on them (a trope of the film that gets repetitive). The convolutedness and hard-to-follow plot is purposefully done, yet at times feel self-indulgent, as if the film believes it’s smarter than the audience (just because they can’t hear the essential plot-driven dialogue that’s sometimes near inaudible). As characters weave in and out of Doc’s (Joaquin Phoenix) own journey and the plot thickens to tar-like viscousness, the middle section of the film seems to relax the progression of the plot in favour of emitting the late ‘60s early ‘70s sense of universal love and drug use, along with drug-induced paranoia and mental instability – these moments are the best parts of the film.
The acting isn’t the best and most powerful PTA has directed, not like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Phillip Seymour Hoffmann in The Master, and there’s nothing even as memorable as Inherent Vice’s older sibling Boogie Nights which featured humorous and energetic performances from Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds. Joaquin Phoenix carries the role well, though it feels lacking when compared to his last few performances in Her, The Master, and even I’m Still Here. The best out of the bunch is Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, a straight-edge detective whose personality is as upright as his military-like appearance. Martin Short is also terrific, his presence in the film is what halts the overdone plot and emphasises the film’s ambient mood of the time, through crazed coke-fuelled, sex-filled “meetings”. Small, but essential parts by Owen Wilson and Jena Malone are well utilised, but actors like Benecio del Toro and Reece Witherspoon have their talents teased, yet not fulfilled in their seemingly useless performances.
Compared to PTA’s other films, Inherent Vice doesn’t stand tall among them. The ensemble cast is great together, but no-one soars. The film cinematography (sometimes heat-damaged) matches the setting, along with the groovy costumes and sets that help to construct this 1970s time, though even these technical details aren’t as cinematic. The story itself is probably the least impressive from PTA, the dual quest to find lovers (long lost?) is unfocused and suffers from inertia – maybe a director’s cut that’s actually shorter would remedy this. Or perhaps a second viewing would clear things up after the confusing initial watch? Only time will tell how much of a successful film this is in comparison to the American masterpieces PTA has previously made.