Have you ever watched a movie that does so much, yet so little at the same time? That when the credits roll the only thing you find yourself saying is, “Well…that was a movie,” a movie that has the potential to be astounding and brilliant, but leaves you feeling a little empty?
Inherent Vice is one such movie.
If you’re one of the few that’s heard of this movie, it’s probably because you saw one of the trailers that contained nothing but a montage of random clips all while a nameless female narrator tells you absolutely nothing about the movie the trailer is trying to market. More likely than not you probably thought to yourself, “Huh. That looks interesting,” but then never saw the movie because it was released in select theaters and came and went relatively unnoticed by the public eye until you just so happened to see it in the New Releases section of Wal-Mart.
Or maybe that’s just how it went for me.
Based off Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Inherent Vice is set in early ’70s Southern California and tells the tale of “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who is a self-proclaimed hippie private investigator, which has to be one of the single most awesome and unique identifications ever. When his gorgeous ex Shasta Fay Hepworth (played by Katherine Waterston) comes to him to find her presumably kidnapped new fling, “Doc” uncovers a tangled web of lies and corruption that will find more people disappearing, a former heroin addict saxophone player, a hippie-hating cop, and something called “The Golden Fang.”
Well, I’ll be a little more fair than that. Inherent Vice isn’t necessarily confusing for all the pieces to the puzzle are there. It’s just loaded with characters, subplots, and dope-head paranoia. I’m also sure that those smarter than I had the movie figured out from the get-go, and the basic premise of the movie is a hippie solving mysteries, plain and simple.
But let’s not start off swinging fists, for there are a lot of things about this movie I really love. Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs this film, and does a good job in both roles. The movie is brilliantly shot, giving the typical sunny streets of a beachside Californian town an eerie sense of friendliness. The production value is also fantastic, making the film feel thoroughly 70s, versus it looking like a costume party gone wrong. The script is tight and well written, loaded with witty and memorable dialogue as well as giving us fantastic locations and fascinating characters.
Phoenix also front runs a fantastic cast, with famous faces such as Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Martin Short giving wonderful performances as perfectly colorful characters.
The soundtrack, composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, is fantastic, giving dark melodies that underlie the eerie and eccentric scenes perfectly. Accompanying the score is a great selection of late 60s rock and soul, the use of “Vitamin C” by Can framing the neon emblazoned title in a way that sets the mood perfectly for the film.
But even though there are a lot of things to praise about the film, but that doesn’t change the fact that Inherent Vice is, as I’ve said, simply about a hippie solving mysteries. That’s it. The whole time watching I felt that the story was building up to something huge, or a mind blowing twist, or a drug trip with bizarre imagery and reality devolving into surreality. But (and this may be considered a “spoiler”) all that happens is “Doc” solves the individual cases and the film has a quasi-happy ending.
Now, I’m not saying that makes the film bad. I haven’t read Pynchon’s original novel, but it’s apparent the story was simply about taking a journey with this character, and I think that’s what Anderson intended the film to be. While this may make for an interesting novel, it doesn’t necessarily transpose into film as well, which ends up bogging Inherent Vice down with scenes that are pointless, long winded, or simply make no sense.
So, a final verdict on Inherent Vice. Stylistically, the film is marvelous. Fantastic setting, amazing attention to detail, great characters and a brilliant soundtrack. However, I have very mixed feelings about the story and overall resolution of the film. Like I said earlier, I claim to be no genius. The film could be brilliant and I may not just be seeing it in the right light. Hell, I still don’t get why there’s such a fanfare for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Graduate, and those never fail to make it onto AFI’s Top Whatever lists. So, to each their own. Would I recommend Inherent Vice? Maybe under the right circumstances. For instance, if you think the notion of being a hippie private investigator is damn awesome.
(Title image via).