According to the legal definition, the term Inherent Vice regards a natural characteristic that causes some goods to be spoiled or become damaged, which insurance companies will not accept as a risk. In other words, it’s like a pre-existing conditions clause for insured objects where a hidden defect could really fuck you. How this figures into Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent work – a 148 minute stoner neo-noir – is about as inessential as knowing this information is. But, the more you know, the more you know, right? Well, if the adventures of Doc Sportello are any indication, probably not.
Inherent Vice is alternately the silliest and smartest film that PTA has given us so far. The seventh feature for a filmmaker who has yet to make a career misstep (he even made Adam Sandler great), it’s a refreshingly leisurely paced time-capsule to when America (i.e. California) was under the influence/threat of drugs, communism, cults and All-You-Can-Eat-Pussy at massage parlors. That last one may just be an affectation, but let’s roll with it. The leader through this mess is the aforementioned Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a shaggy PI that looks a lot like Danny Masterson’s character in That 70s Show. Through the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours, Doc manages to involve himself with the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Panthers, the FBI, a heroin cartel, and what may be a guild of dentists. How this all unfolds should remain a mystery until you’re in your theater seat, but it’s a fun ride.
Up until this point, PTA has never really made a genre film and I’m still not sure that he has, but this is certainly a step in that direction. For all of its neo-noir sensibilities, it is far from a thriller even if the comparisons to The Long Goodbye are apt. Rather, it plays out more like a politically aware Cheech & Chong movie or a Pink Panther-esque caper as written by Elmore Leonard. Its tone is so off balance (not in a bad way) and its form so rigid that it doesn’t feel as singularly sourced as PTA’s other works, and that’s because it isn’t. Thomas Pynchon’s work had remained up until now “unfilmable” and I’m happy to say that this film proves any such claims absolutely wrong. I read the book prior to seeing the film and it’s remarkably faithful, with Pynchon’s noted dry humor remaining intact and his more florid attempts at language delivered by a game cast and a strangely fitting narrator in the form of Joanna Newsom.
Inherent Vice likely won’t please a lot of viewers. It’s long, exposition heavy and wears its quirks with pride. But it not only works in and of itself, but as a piece of PTA’s career thus far. Considering the time and place of its narrative, it feels almost like a pseudo-companion to Boogie Nights with both films chronicling outsider culture at a time when being on the inside was in. Coming from a filmmaker that has made a career out of garnering attention getting performances from his leads, Inherent Vice is almost strangely low-key. And in every aspect. Joaquin and the rest of the cast do a wonderful job at faithfully portraying Pynchon’s eccentric cast of characters, but – Josh Brolin yelling in Japanese about pancakes aside – nobody puts in a performance as over the top as Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Philip Seymour Hoffman in any of his films with PTA. And that’s how it should be. In the end, Inherent Vice is as much about Doc as it is about whatever he (or anyone else in the movie) is after and it isn’t so much about the pay-off as the trip to get there. This is distinctly early 70s Americana filmmaking – think Two Lane Blacktop or Five Easy Pieces – somehow created in 2014. The reward isn’t in the closure of the story but in the fact that this was even able to be made. It’s the stoner-noir-conspiracy-comedy featuring Martin Short as a horny, drugged up dentist in a leisure suit that you never knew you wanted. Don’t miss it.