Paul Thomas Anderson has once again proven his relevance to our generation with his exemplary direction in his latest film “Inherent Vice.” Anderson’s seventh film is his second collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix and the first and only film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon literature to date.
Drugs, sex and Nazis line the streets in Pynchon and Anderson’s vision of the nihilistic wonderland of 1970’s Los Angeles. These two take viewers down the rabbit hole of an adventure which slowly becomes less about the search for truth than the search for oneself in this psychedelic neo-noir.
The film opens as crime thrillers often do when a mysterious and beautiful woman approaches a private detective with a case which turns out to be more than it appears. What quickly distinguishes this film is its sporadic comedy, entrancing characters, captivating visuals and layered subtext.
In his second role under Anderson’s direction, Joaquin Phoenix enthralls us as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a washed out, drug-addled, hippie, private investigator. Sportello is approached by his ex-lover, played by Katherine Waterston, to thwart a scheme to abduct and institutionalize Mickey Wolfmann by his wife and her lover. The plot becomes quickly convoluted by ex-cons, the Aryan Brotherhood, missing saxophonists, drugs, and corrupt cops. Suffice it to say, the narrative becomes a little hard to follow. But that’s okay.
The plot takes a backseat to the wonderful tableaus which immerse viewers in the ending of the era of free love and rampant drugs for all. Scenes run away with the witty dialogue and outlandish behavior of a myriad of fantastic and bizarre characters which fill every scene of the movie. The all-star cast brings Pynchon’s characters to life in both relatable and haunting ways.
Sportello quickly becomes involved as a person of interest following a murder in which he is implicated. Thus begins Phoenix’s time on screen with Josh Brolin in some of the most memorable scenes in recent years. Brolin plays Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen in a caricature of masculinity and vanity so violent and self-assured his every action is amusing. Bjornsen’s harassment and abuse, whether verbal or physical, of Sportello makes their interactions unpredictable, laughable, and in some cases, tragic.
We see these characters as they see each other; in awe, suspicion and confusion. The search for the truth by the characters becomes our own as each action they take seems to make less sense but becomes more intriguing.
What begins as a search for Mickey Wolfmann becomes a search for meaning. We are aided by the poetic voice-over narration of Waterston who recalls the story to us in Pynchon’s words directly. These moments provide some of the best insights into the motivations of the characters and some of the most beautiful imagery in the film.
Adapting the metaphysical and surreal post-modernism of Pynchon is no easy feat for even the most seasoned screenwriters. Anderson adapted the novel for the screen and was nominated for an Academy Award for his work. Only this kind of collaboration can produce performances from Benicio Del Toro, in a role reminiscent of “Leaving Las Vegas”, as a no-nonsense maritime lawyer, and Martin Short as a coke and sex-addicted dentist in crush velvet suits.
“Inherent Vice” is currently sporting a 71% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1 on Metacritic. It has been nominated for two Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design. This film has all the ingredients of a cult-classic and is a reminder why Anderson’s work should not be missed.