“Inherent Vice” is perhaps the first detective noir, loaded with characters and plot lines, that seems to have no interest in solving any of it. This movie is a 148 minute acid trip fueled by drugs, sex, and then more drugs.
It almost makes sense as every moment of the film involves private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a man in such a marijuana stupor that solving crime should be the last thing he would choose for a profession. But, in director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson’s version of 1970 southern California, Doc is easily the most stable individual alive.
Doc finds himself in the thick of paranoia and conspiracy theories after a visit from an old girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She is embroiled in what seems like a dozen plots involving her lover, Michael Wolfman (Eric Roberts), a rich home developer who has gone missing. Perma-stoned Shasta is also involved with Wolfman’s wife and his wife’s lover in some sort of extortion scheme.
Again, there are many layers to this tale, which Doc hilariously jots down into his trusty notebook. It takes quite a bit of patience to sit through name after name, tossed out like candy. There are Aryan supremacists, black militant groups, drug smugglers, FBI agents, and even corrupt dentists (one played gleefully by Martin Short) in the mix, which may leave audiences feeling half-baked without the aid of psychotropics.
After Doc is found at a murder scene, we meet Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Bigfoot is constantly eating, mostly frozen chocolate covered bananas, which leads to some hysterical oral fixations only made that much more funny with Doc’s reactions. There’s little doubt there is history between Doc and Bigfoot, which leads to the funniest, most coherent moments of “Inherent Vice”.
In Anderson fashion, the web of characters is sprawling. Unlike the greatness of “Boogie Nights” or “Magnolia”, there never feels like there will be any payoff. It’s just a big quirky hodgepodge with loads of style and not much substance.
Owen Wilson shows up as Coy Harlingen, a recovering drug addict who seems to have information that could be useful to Doc. This thread, along with a handful of others, never seem to fit. It causes large portions of “Inherent Vice” to be detached from even its own strange reality.
There is also a weird, poetic-like narration by Sortilege (Joanna Newsom). She narrates Doc’s life, dishing out his inner monologue, but never giving any explanation how she knows what is happening to him. Sortilege is quite fascinating, but she may be a complete figment of Doc’s imagination. There is definitely a reason she’s only providing a narration.
Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit have made “Inherent Vice” a gorgeous movie to watch. The colors, camera movement, and slightly off way characters are shown is essentially movie THC, hoping to get you stoned just on looks alone. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood provides a musical score which only adds to the head trip.
Sadly, it doesn’t add up. It’s far too length of a stay in this tripped up Anderson World. He gets fantastic performances from his actors, but just can’t keep this yarn from unraveling. There are maybe two or three moments in which the movie could end, but “Inherent Vice” slogs on.
That’s not to say that watching Joaquin Phoenix stutter, fumble, and behave like a cartoon character isn’t enjoyable. Phoenix radiates stupidity and intelligence all at the same, sometimes with just an eye squint or a mumbled “uh huh” or “hmm”. He shows off quite a bit of physical humor as well and a few surprise moments that could elicit snort laughter.
Josh Brolin rips “Inherent Vice” out from under everyone and dominates the movie. His Brickfoot relishes being a homicide detective, gleefully talking about violating civil rights and abusing Doc both mentally and physically as much as he can in public.
Brolin’s final scene in “Inherent Vice” is almost indescribable. It encapsulates the unexplainable insanity that Anderson’s scripts seem to always include, with Brolin being equal parts hilarious and bizarre.
There is a good chance that in several years, “Inherent Vice” will make complete sense and any head scratching over it right now will seem silly. While it is flawed, slightly pretentious, and exceptionally uncomfortable in spurts, it does leave you wanting to understand it. When a movie does that, essentially demanding a second viewing, that has to mean it works on some level.
Own “Inherent Vice” on Blu-rayÔ Combo Pack, DVD and Digital HD on April 28 from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.