MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Inherent Vice’ Will Leave You With A Contact High

inherent vice

Film: Inherent Vice
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director known for his divisive films. Boogie Nights was criticized for the glorification of the adult film industry when it was doing anything but. There Will Be Blood was put down for its constant nihilism shown through the eyes of a morally terrible main character. Inherent Vice is his newest film, sure to sway viewers into positive and negative camps. Based upon the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same title, the film about a pot-smoking private eye is like taking a hit of a joint with each viewing. At first glance, the 1970s-based noir feels like a hazily obscured dream, one that is somber but oft-times hilarious. After repeat viewings, you start deciphering things in a different way, like an extra-sensory layer is added to the story that you didn’t catch in the first place. Finally releasing in Boston (in 35mm at Coolidge Corner!), the best movie of 2014 is available for your mind to try to wrap around.

It’s 1970 in the fictional beachside town of Gordita Beach, California. It’s the end of free love as hippies are looked upon as deviants. Private eye and doper Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a visit in his bungalow by an ex-old flame named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). When Shasta tells Doc of a plot to throw her current real estate developer beau Mickey Wolfmann into the looney bin, things get a little hairy. Inherent Vice on the surface is about a do-gooder in a place and time that doesn’t recognize that. The deeper Doc gets into the case, the more he realizes that he’s a pawn in the efforts of the mysterious “Golden Fang.”

If Cheech or Chong were to train to be private eyes, then you may get close to what Phoenix brings to the table in what can only be explained as a film noir on hallucinatory drugs. Doc is the subject of a time that doesn’t accept people like him (hippies). This is the time of Charlie Manson, when people became a bit more wary of what people of Doc’s liking were doing in society. Because of that, people like Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) are out to get Doc, even if that means setting him up for murder. Phoenix may be a revelation as Doc but all praise should go to Brolin, a hilarious but depressing take on a man well versed in police brutality, a guy who’s only release may be performing fellatio on a chocolate frozen banana (you’ll see).

One of the things more impressive than Anderson’s recreation of a neon-infused time in history is the soundtrack that bolsters up the narrative. Composer Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, and frequent collaborator with Anderson, once again syncs up some strong chords to help set the moody era that the narrative inhabits. In scenes where fear encroaches upon Doc, the score becomes foreboding to the point where we are dreading what may happen to our favorite private eye next. Inherent Vice is one of those rare films that use songs in such a literal sense. “Burning Bridges” by Jack Scott plays as Doc’s current beau sets him up to be questioned by the FBI. The lyrics “burning bridges” are repeated once Doc finally notices that something is amiss. Anderson doesn’t use music just because he thinks it sounds nice behind a scene, he implements music like it’s a whole other narrative, giving you more insight into the characters and their respective plights.

Inherent Vice also gets help from the immensely talented cast of supporting players that it employs. Owen Wilson plays Coy Harlingen, a recovered doper working for a no-name business that uses him as a spy. The way he carries himself around and talks somberly about the family he forcibly left behind is heart wrenching. Katherine Waterston as Shasta may be the most tear-inducing one of them all. A girl, who realizes the men she’s been with are defining her, silently rebels, and realizes that her sexual feminine wiles may be the only thing she can use to get Doc back in her life. Musician Joanna Newsom may be the biggest surprise to come out of the film as Doc’s spiritual guide/friend, Sortilège. She pulls double duty as an actual character and the narrator that lives inside of Doc’s mind. At first, she narrates the story’s events in a normal manner but when things get hairy, she plays the part of an invested viewer. Doc’s befuddled looks on his face go hilariously with Sortilège’s constant berating of Doc to realize the gravity of the situations he gets into.

Martin Short as a cocaine-addicted dentist, Benecio Del Toro as Doc’s wisecracking lawyer, and Reese Witherspoon as his emotionally abusive (for his own good, she thinks) current flame all round out a film that only gets more elevated as these little character vignettes segue into the main narrative. Inherent Vice has a knack for emulating the attention span of a pothead without losing its way. In the beginning, you’re led to believe that Doc will get right on the case that Shasta employs him for. Instead, he’s pulled in a plethora of separate ways that have him veering off course only to be crashing right back onto his original mission, almost accidentally.

This brings to an end my plea for you, the reader, to seek out this movie as soon as possible. Even if that means you have to drive an hour or two out of your way to experience it, you won’t regret what may be one of the most transformative theater experiences of the decade.


Review written by Sam Cohen (Follow him on Twitter)

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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