Inherent Vice Plot Summary:
Set in 1970 Los Angeles, an aloof stoner private investigator (Joaquin Phoenix) is tasked by his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) to uncover a plot where her lover (Eric Roberts) may have been kidnapped by his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boyfriend (Andrew Simpson) where they committed him to a mental institution. The case leads Detective Doc Sportello into far greater crimes, and makes him the target of a high ranking police investigator (Josh Brolin) who holds a grudge against Doc.
I’m a Paul Thomas Anderson fan, make no mistake about it, in particular his most recent film, The Master (2012), which also starred Joaquin Phoenix in an incredible performance. The two come together once again for Inherent Vice, and unfortunately the result is very different. As great a director as Paul Thomas Anderson is, sometimes he goes off into his own little world, and in this movie he goes into another stratosphere. I tried to stick with this film. I really did. It’s impossible to follow all these plot threads, and the reason I walked out totally confused is because forty minutes into the movie I no longer cared about any of it. The pretentious critic brigade will claim that they got this movie, and the rest of the audience just isn’t smart enough. If you enjoyed the film, then good for you. Even if you were successfully able to follow this storyline, there is still nothing to get, because these characters are completely forgettable, and there is no connection to anything whatsoever. That’s why this movie fails.
I know this will piss people off, but I’m going to bring up Christopher Nolan. Everybody relax, it will be over soon. The reason I’m able to follow his complex plots and forgive any minor missteps in logic here or there is because I care about his characters, no matter how I feel about them. I want to go along for the ride. Inherent Vice is a big mess because Paul Thomas Anderson is giving the audience nothing to latch onto, other than to try and keep up with his ridiculous screenplay.
I was mildly entertained for the first half hour. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello was an amusing character as this spaced out private investigator who constantly got himself into bad situations. After a while though, the novelty wears off. This isn’t a protagonist. This is a guy who should pop in as a funny side character for fifteen minutes. He shouldn’t carry an entire movie. There is no bigger Joaquin Phoenix fan than me, but this performance is just off. I don’t care about this guy at all, nor did I care about any of the 900 side plots he unravels.
The other characters are nothing to write home about either. Josh Brolin is solid as the exact opposite to Doc, the clean cut cop. He hates Doc, and is constantly trying to bring him down with anything he can get his hands on. This difference between the two characters could have been played up so much more, but Paul Thomas Anderson has a short attention span, and never gives the audience a chance to take anything in. He goes right to the next drugged out whatever sequence.
Benicio Del Toro was probably my favorite performance as Doc’s lawyer, and I wish they could have spent more time with him. At least he was funny. The worst writing of all though was for Shasta (Waterston), Doc’s girlfriend. I have no clue what Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to do with this character. Is she literally just supposed to be on drugs the entire time? What the hell does she want? There’s this big scene between her and Doc in the middle of the film where she rambles on for what seems like days, but it might as well have been gibberish.
It seemed like the main storyline of the wife (Thomas) trying to fraud her husband (Roberts) into a mental institution doesn’t even matter by the second half. All of a sudden it’s about Doc trying to help Owen Wilson’s character, and then Martin Short shows up as a sleazy sex crazed dentist, and a member (Michael Kenneth Williams) of the Black Panthers pops up too. I don’t know. It’s like Paul Thomas Anderson added characters and conflicts at will. Every time you think you’re a following a logical plot thread, it completely evaporates into nothing.
Inherent Vice is like a terrible version of The Big Lebowski. I enjoyed the 1970’s atmosphere and music, and there were some solid performances, but that’s about it. I understand this was based on a novel, so maybe that’s how it reads, but 100% of the blame must fall at the feet of Paul Thomas Anderson. This is what happens sometimes when you let a director run wild with no restrictions whatsoever. The fact that it’s not very funny and runs for a painful two and half hours plus makes the cob webs of confusion that much worse. All you need to know about Inherent Vice is that I didn’t even feel like I saw a movie. I knew just as much about the film when I walked in, to when it mercifully ended.
Rating: 4.5 out of 10 (Bad)
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.