Inherent Vice is a confounding mess, void of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's (There Will Be Blood) trademark style and full of the foggy haze of dope-smoking and double-crosses. This is the kind of movie people see, hate, and then listen to critics tell them they "didn't get." Well, here's one critic who didn't get it, either.
Based on Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name, the story, set in the psychedelic era of yore, follows private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he searches for his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and her wealthy new boyfriend Mickey (Eric Roberts). The belief is that Mickey's wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and the wife's boyfriend sent Mickey to an asylum so they can make off with his millions.
Doc starts his search, and chaos, misdirection, sidesteps, tangents and detours ensue — so much so, they become what the movie is about, and those aren't good things for a movie to be about. Doc is in the middle of it all the entire time, but in the middle of what, exactly? We only know what Doc knows; problem is, even Doc doesn't know what he knows, and he smokes dope so much, it's hard to trust him when he thinks he's right. He doesn't reach a resolution; he falls into it after a series of vague clues from a surplus of supporting characters. Phoenix is always a compelling actor to watch, and it's a tricky thing to play a lost soul, but too much is lost here for the film's own good.
One gets the sense Anderson stayed too loyal to his source material and didn't excise enough for the sake of cinematic storytelling. This is Anderson's seventh feature film, and he's trending downward. Boogie Nights was a brilliant work that thrust him onto the scene in 1997, followed by the ambitious Magnolia (1999) and later the masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007). But with The Master (2011) and now Inherent Vice, he seems to be losing his way. His films used to tell thought-provoking stories with bold visuals, intricate camera movements and smart dialogue, but lately he's abandoned those tenets for simpler visuals and unclear narratives (if you can tell me what he was trying to say with The Master, please do). Why he's chosen to get away from what made him successful is anyone's guess, but for his fans, it's frustrating to watch a misstep like Inherent Vice when they know how good he can be.
It has to be disappointing for the actors, too. They know Anderson is a born auteur, and flock to work with him because they trust he'll make them look good and the project will be special. There are only a few directors who can claim this draw (Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese), so the least Anderson could have done was to keep the tone consistent for all his players. Phoenix straddles the edges between comedy and drama, but Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Jena Malone seem to think it's a drama, while Josh Brolin, Martin Short and Benicio Del Toro seem to think it's a comedy. It can't truly be both, and the random oddball humor doesn't fit as comic relief. It's all over the place and nowhere at the same time.
Perhaps there was something I didn't understand about Inherent Vice. Maybe there's something to all the drugs, nudity and weirdness that will speak to others in a way that it didn't speak to me, but one thing is certain: What I did understand didn't work at all. Let's hope this is just a rough patch and Anderson's not going the way of M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). The real shame would be merely mediocre Anderson films from now on.