Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
Inherent Vice

Title: Inherent Vice

Is That Anything Like "MIami Vice?" More pot, less cocaine. And it's 1970, so the clothes aren't quite so fabulous.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Four and a half chocolate-covered bananas out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Stoner private investigator investigates, gets stoned.

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Tagline: There isn't one. "Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel?" What is it with you people and your *rules,* man?

Better Tagline: "Out! Back to the sixties! Back! There's no place for you here in the future!"

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Los Angeles (well, Manhattan Beach)-based private dick who would rather spend his days smoking weed than helping his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to investigate the disappearance of her current paramour, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who may or may not have been committed to an asylum by her wife and wife's lover. In the meantime, he runs afoul of Det. Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an old LAPD nemesis, crooked feds, heroin smugglers, and hippie cultists. Then shit gets weird.

"Critical" Analysis: You can be forgiven for getting a distinct Big Lebowski vibe from Paul Thomas Anderson's latest.

All the elements are there: stoner PI (in this case, an actual private investigator and not a misidentified bowler), missing person's case with the promise of a big payout, mysterious ladies, Southern California locales, nihilists (okay, drug-dealing dentists). And if you aren't familiar with both works, you might suspect Inherent Vice author Thomas Pynchon, also known for The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, of influencing the Coens when in fact the reverse might actually be true. TBL came out in 1998, Pynchon's novel in 2007.

What is certain, and honestly a little surprising, is how funny Inherent Vice truly is. As with most of Anderson's work, I didn't know exactly what to expect going in, but it sure wasn't this hazy and often hilarious surf noir tale, replete with plenty of red herrings and outré characters. Taken simply like that, it would be a perfectly acceptable film, but Anderson -- in addition to his usual meticulous re-creation of the period in question -- infuses his film with an undeniable poignancy that cuts through the occasional lunacy of the surroundings.

Works of art describing or alluding to the cultural divide between the '60s and the '70s have been around since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and about the only thing missing from Doc's musing on the increasing paranoia of his once beloved country is a line about the counterculture wave rolling back. Pynchon and Anderson's take on this period is more subversive, but also more of a lament than HST's ether binge, represented as much by the fates of Doc's former friends and Shasta as the failure of that era's ideals.

As with his other movies, Anderson's musical choices should be singled out. Few are as adept as PTA at syncing songs with scenes, and while Inherent Vice will never top Boogie Nights in that regard, the selection here is still pretty spot-on, with Neil Young, Minnie Riperton, proto-Krautrock group Can, and even a previously unreleased Radiohead song (live mainstay "Spooks"), augmented by Johnny Greenwood's period-appropriate score.

And once again, the cast is at the top of its game. Phoenix is never better than when Anderson directs him, with Doc and Freddy Quell (The Master) being two if his finest performances. Reese Witherspoon reunites with her Walk the Line co-star, playing his now straitlaced ex, while Owen Wilson, as Doc's presumed dead musician friend Coy, gets away with playing himself one more time. Benicio Del Toro and Martin Short are great in roles that are polar opposites from their usual shtick, but it's Brolin, as the flattopped yet deeply closeted Bigfoot, who surprisingly steals every scene.

I admit, I really loved Inherent Vice. I can't say for sure it's my favorite PTA film (Boogie Nights is hard to beat), but it made my Top 10 list for the year. Don't be surprised, however, if reaction elsewhere is uncharacteristically negative for an Anderson film. This is his most overtly comic movie since 2002's Punch-Drunk Love, but the comedy here is broader, from Bigfoot's predilection for chocolate-covered bananas (and Doc's fascinated/horrified reaction to this), to Pynchon's on-the-nose character names (Sauncho Smilax, Agent Borderline, "Dr. Tubeside"), to the meandering plot, recalling The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and -- yes -- Lebowski.

Is it always coherent? Not even close, but it's one hell of a trip.

Inherent Vice is in theaters today. Now, for some reason, I want to move to California.


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