Twitter Plot Summary: PI Doc Sportello gets involved in an onion layered investigation that on the face of it doesn’t make much sense.
Well now, this one is a bit of a head trip. Spread out over a languorous 2.5 hours, Inherent Vice is not a film where the particulars of the story are all that important. What you need to know is Private Investigator Doc Sportello is tasked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to stop her current lover, the wealthy Eric Roberts, from being committed to an insane asylum by his wife and her lover. Confused yet? Well you’ve not seen anything yet. Matters are not helped thanks to Doc’s dependency on drugs, smoking and snorting his way through the case in a haze of smoke and confused perceptions.
Joaquin Phoenix is Doc, sporting epic mutton chops and a mane of hair that totally fit the film’s setting of 1970. He is totally invested in the character, alternating between drug-induced paranoia and the very occasional moments of clarity. One part serious crime drama, one part comedy, the script allows Phoenix to play it just one notch away from being completely over the top, more often than not staring at the people and the world around him with barely concealed confusion and puzzlement. The joy of it is that we don’t have to rely on him as the narrator, as that duty is provided by Sortilège, an almost incidental character in the overall narrative but is certainly in a position to be a more reliable narrator than Doc.
To take the edge off, you can even enjoy a number of extended cameo appearances from a smorgasbord of Hollywood talent. The likes of Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone and Josh Brolin (and still more) all show up and ply their wares. Brolin in particular, as the conflicted cop Bjornsen, is the one who gets the most development from start to finish, and it’s a much more nuanced performance than he gave us in the Oldboy remake.
The story isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things, but the characters and setting are what make it what it is, alongside some typically perfect direction from Paul Thomas Anderson. Instead we move from sequence to sequence, not quite sure what’s going on but hopefully willing to see things through to the end, such is its labyrinthine insanity. By all accounts adapting the works of Thomas Pynchon is no easy task, and again by all accounts Anderson has made a solid attempt at doing so. But ignoring the adaptation side of things, does Inherent Vice work as a film in its own right? Public opinion may sway on this point, but yes, it does. When you have characters as rich and varied as this, any misconceptions about the need for clear storytelling are lost in favour of superb characterisation and performances. It’s not so much a film as a live action piece of art.
If you can complain about anything, it’s that it could be considered as being a good 20 minutes to half an hour longer than it perhaps needs to be, however if you’re in the right mindset for some drug-fuelled crime investigations and you’ve got no place to go then Inherent Vice is the film for you.