NYFF 2014: Inherent Vice
From behind a haze of pot smoke and hippie dreams, P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) navigates 1970s Los Angeles as cultures clash amidst the paranoid aftermath of the Manson Family Murders. At the onset of Inherent Vice, Doc is awoken by ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) who’s found herself part of an entangled web involving a real estate tycoon, a biker gang of “Aryan Brotherhood alumni,” and an Indo-Chinese drug cartel. The real estate developer has gone missing, and soon after, Shasta’s gone too. So, Doc begins a hunt for the answers, if only he can figure out the right questions to ask.
If you’ve heard of or are anticipating Inherent Vice and are not already a Thomas Pynchon reader, chances are it’s because the movie is Paul Thomas Anderson‘s latest. Any film listed in the same filmography as Magnolia and There Will Be Blood has a high standard to live up to; however, Vice doesn’t share too much in common with PTA’s most notable works, aside from its California setting. Despite Inherent Vice‘s deep roster of big name stars, it’s not a sprawling ensemble piece like Boogie Nights although Martin Short and Benicio Del Toro a couple of scenes in which they get to briefly steal the show. It’s certainly more of a comedy than his last two films, but the bizarre laughs are rooted in absurdity in a way unlike his early works. Likewise, Inherent Vice isn’t an intricate character study in the fashion of Anderson’s most recent film (also with Phoenix) The Master, it’s more of an examination of a time and characters that belong to it.
For all its strengths, it’s a challenge to grasp everything Anderson throws at the audience in his movie. Inherent Vice‘s convoluted non-story sees characters enter and exit the picture like a revolving door around Doc. Though clever in his own right, Phoenix’s detective is not the type to piece together a complex case; rather, the movie is far more concerned with the heir of mystery than solving the puzzle in a satisfying way. Its subtle touches will likely have to be sussed out during repeat viewings. But as baffling as the film can be on the initial watch, with PTA’s confident direction Inherent Vice remains captivating throughout.