Inherent Vice (2014): Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, and Joanna Newsom. Running Time: 148 minutes. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon.
The one and only mistake you can make when watching Inherent Vice is to attach any sort of significance to the contours of the plot, because the movie certainly doesn’t, although the characters certainly do in their more sober moments, and trying to hold the many threads and conspiracies and betrayals in place is a dangerously slippery proposition. Like trying to hold several bars of lathery slope while running alongside the pool. Nominally, the movie is about Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) trying to help his ex-girl (Katherine Waterston) prevent a scheme by the wife of her current boyfriend, a famous real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann, to have Wolfmann tossed into a looney bin so she can get her hands on his money. But even that initial setup is only recalled occasionally at first, and is dismissed halfway through when….well, that would be spoiling, and that’s not Doc’s way.
There are sideplots and sidetracks aplenty, including a search for a possibly dead, or maybe not, musician named Coy (Owen Wilson), a drug heist, and a run-in with a pair of gang thugs (Peter McRobbie and Keith Jardine). Every step of the way, Doc is alternately helped and antagonized by his contact in the LAPD, officer Bjornsen, aka “Bigfoot” (a perfect-as-always Josh Brolin). Like I said though, the side details are irrelevant. This is a film about watching people be their strange, altered-state-of-mind selves in the post-hippy setting of the 1970’s, and is merely content to flit from scenario to scenario, all of it observed through Doc’s unfazed, and often unfocused eyes.
Is the movie about something? It could be, although like with any film by Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s hard to say, and one can never escape the feeling that even to ask such a question is to get something fundamentally wrong. For all its setup as a grimy thriller, the movie just never seems to care all that much about itself. Just consider Doc’s notebook- he scribbles into it furiously whenever he picks up on a possible lead or gets a piece of valuable information, but on the few times we see what he actually does write, it’s either gibberish, or a nonsensical code that only translates to something inside his own fevered mind. When told a Spanish saying offering a clue as to the whereabouts of the Wolfmann, he merely writes, “Something Spanish.”
Joaquin Phoenix has spent the past few years coming back in style after his absence from the film world, giving us one compulsively watchable performance after another in The Master, The Immigrant, and Her, but it might be this performance of his that offers the biggest clues as to what makes him such a great actor for these sorts of strange, oddball roles- his face can be so inscrutable at times, but in the small spaces between lines he can shift expression in ways both large and small that can perfectly carry the emotion of a scene. Doc often repeats himself, so the meaning behind the words comes more often than not from whatever expression Phoenix is holding on his face during the scene, and it’s fantastic to watch.
While everyone on-screen is a blast, the other brightest light is Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, a hulking, grunting, scowling, mountain of everything people then and now would associate with the powers that be. He openly derides anything smacking of hippy culture, doing his darnedest to be a true Man’s Man, while also consuming reams of popsicles and chocolate-covered bananas in a manner that any frequenter of porn sites would be most familiar with. He and Doc are perfect foils for each other, and at a deep, unspoken level, they seem to know that, and they look out for each other even when one is trying to screw over the other. A final scene between the two of them is perhaps the one part of the entire film that breaks through the veneer of cool, hip, stoned detachment that covers everything else like a thick sheet. I am rarely one for sequels, but I would gladly welcome a spinoff consisting of nothing more than these two characters playing off each other for two hours straight.
In fact, that seems to be a recurring theme in P.T.A.’s last three movies, the particulars of story/setting/time period notwithstanding- the interplay between two people so diametrically opposed to each other in terms of their personalities, life circumstances, and goals, that they can’t help being drawn to each other. The results are brutal and violent in the case of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, a curiously adoring relationship between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd in The Master, and a partnership in this movie that is antagonistic on the surface, but also may mean something more to Doc and Bigfoot than they would ever let on. The similarities and differences between these different pairs is a topic that, on all its own, could have reams written about it, and it’s the surest sign in Inherent Vice that we are indeed seeing a work from Anderson’s strange, strange mind.
There is an odd, neglected beauty in how the film drifts, much like the waves that the camera keeps drawing back to. In, out, in, out, never really settling in one place. The lighting and filming style makes it look the film sprang from some decades-old home-movie collection of an age long gone, much like how the hippy movement had long since receded by the time the events we see take place. And even then, the parts of Los Angeles we see, for all their dangers, seem like a place one could spend an eternity in and pretend that everything is being held in stasis, never changing, always drifting with the waves.
Perhaps that explains the very nonchalant way Doc approaches the world. Only occasionally does something break through. Something so obviously out of place that he can no longer ignore it. We get a flashback of a misadventure he had once with Shasta, where they tried using a Ouija Board to locate a drug dealer, and find nothing but an empty lot. Doc happens across the lot during his search for Wolfmann- or maybe for the not-dead musician, we never really know, if it even matters- except that now the lot is filled by a massive, gleaming, obtuse, and extremely phallic office building of some sort. He sees it, stops, stares briefly, then continues on his way. Wouldn’t do much good to look twice.