Doc Sportello is on the case… This stoner Private Eye gets involved in a complex and tangled mystery.
Let’s just say, Doc may have rolled up more than he can smoke.
INHERENT VICE is the latest PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON picture based on Thomas Pynchon’s critically adored novel.
The aloof yet perceptive Doc is portrayed on screen by chameleon JOAQUIN PHOENIX. He mumbles and bumbles his way through an intricately woven web, chasing down evidence and uncovering more than any Detective could hope to.
VICE is a strange combination of film noirs like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and 90s independent cinema like BIG LEBOWSKI. It takes the fiction of Raymond Chandler or Billy Wilder mixed up in a bowl with the Coen Bros, and blazed up by the torch of Martin Scorsese.
Doc’s ex-girlfriend, SHASTA (Katherine Waterston), steps back into his world looking for his help as a Private Eye. There’s something fishy going on with an ex-boyfriend, somehow involving construction planning in 1970s Los Angeles, and a mysterious entity known only as The Golden Fang.
Solving this case won’t be easy…
(This review is SPOILER FREE… And intended for a MATURE audience.)
JOSH BROLIN portrays the immediate antagonist – a detective with a long troubled history with Doc. Brolin is usually a dominant presence on screen, but in VICE he is almost feminine. And he pulls off some comedy.
His character constantly tries to get on Doc’s nerves by making gay advances, including his constant consumption of chocolate frozen bananas. These little quirks add up, as they are sprinkled throughout with each character.
Phoenix and Brolin are constant opponents seeking the same truths. Their interactions are one of the highlights of INHERENT VICE.
Phoenix is the star. His performance is the star. Usually, Anderson is the star of his movies, but the main enjoyment in VICE is watching Phoenix navigate his way through this film noir labyrinth.
Once again, Phoenix looses himself in the role. Doc is so natural and free. VICE is like BIG LEBOWSKI if The Dude was a Private Eye (minus the pissed on rug). Both movies involve a complicated story of crime, and both are filled with memorable odd characters.
One of the highlights is watching how Doc connects-the-dots. He keeps strange notes in his Detective Notepad, scribbling observations such as “Not Hallucinating” or “Something in Spanish”. It seems like he doesn’t care about his interviews, but these notes are to jog his hazy smoke-filled memories later on.
While dismissed by most, Doc is more intelligent and deductive than most.
Anderson’s direction is a sight to behold. Numerous times he slowly pushes the camera in, tightening the frame in a barely perceptible manner. PTA stages a theatre of moving images.
I’ve always been a fan of his long steadi-cam shots. I was surprised to see a lack of these in VICE. Instead we get a lot of still moments with stationary characters and a dolly track towards the subject.
PTA also knows music. There are several strong source music moments with songs from the era. But it’s Jonny Greenwood (from RADIOHEAD) and his score that really drives the images. The ethereal sounds are appropriately spacey and dream-like.
We stumble through the haze alongside Doc, due to the amazing performances, bold direction, and atmospheric music.
One of the best elements in VICE is the atypical narration. A woman voices some of Doc’s thoughts, and largely helps us stay in pace with the film.
A lot of these insights are truly hilarious. My favourite stuff involves the mentions of “Doper ESP”.
Impressive co-stars surround the main talent – Reese WITHERSPOON, Owen WILSON, Benicio DEL TORO, Martin SHORT, and Katherine Waterson (as Shasta).
Witherspoon plays a higher-up ally, whom Doc works with to garner further evidence. Wilson’s shady character is an undercover agent and long-time friend of Doc.
Benicio plays the Stoner’s lawyer – kind of like his title to Johnny DEPP in FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. He only appears briefly, but his cinematic resumé brings gravitas to an important role.
Martin Short steals each scene he’s in as an important figure who enjoys the hedonistic lifestyle. Those moments between Doc, Short, and a table full of cocaine were hilarious.
I was surprised by Waterston’s performance. It’s definitely multi-layered.
For the story to work, we have to understand how Doc could fall in love with her and how he would still desire her long after their break up.
Waterston has to portray a few character in one, she has to be gentle in the flashbacks (which were surprisingly authentic and emotional), she has to be mysterious, and she has to be the seductive femme fatale.
We’re never sure which character Shasta truly is. A lot of this success relies on the rising talent of Waterston.
The story is perfectly staged. VICE is a film that requires at least a little participation. There are multiple storylines to keep track of, and we’re never sure of character motives. We almost feel like Doc, a little dazed and confused.
By the end, we see an evolution in Doc. He isn’t the same character we met in the intro. This character evolution is beautifully orchestrated by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s a shame he didn’t get more Award consideration for his role as Doc Sportello.
With Shasta, we have to wonder (like Doc) how sincere she is?
Is she being manipulative?
Has she had a change of heart? Is she in trouble? Is she conning Doc?
When Shasta seduces Doc it begs the question: Who is in control?
Deciphering these equations was a pure delight.
If the performances, writing, and directing were not so top notch VICE would not have been so successful.
INHERENT VICE, while complicated and unusual, is a quirky and strange mystery worth participating in for numerous reasons.
When critics and audiences are divided down the middle so severely it usually equates to a great movie. Look no further than cult classics like PULP FICTION and BLADE RUNNER, or something more recent like BIRDMAN or INTERSTELLAR.
When you’re in the mood for true indie cinema done right (re: that 1990s kinda way) look no further than Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest INHERENT VICE – an unpredictable and exciting change of pace from the usual.
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