If one could enjoy a movie for mood and setting alone, Inherent Vice may be the masterpiece of the year. It is America of of 1970 that director P.T. Anderson is laying out, that time of hazy drugs and confused meanings when the entire country seemed to have completely lost the post-war plot. That the rootlessness of the times overwhelms the characters is understandable, but at 2 1/2 hours, viewers may become restless at the meandering developments that always seem to be leading somewhere, but which never reach any specific conclusion.
White supremacists, white-shoe lawyers, hippie chicks, sex workers and strung-out dentists are among the many legitimate and subterranean characters private detective Doc Sportello (Joachin Phoenix) meets on his wide ranging investigation into…something or other…in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. We never are quite certain what it is Doc has been hired to investigate, or for that matter, if he has been hired at all. As a hippy turned P.I. working under a constant haze of smoke, he may not be too certain himself. Whatever it is, it is big, involves real estate, drugs, prostitution, Las Vegas, corrupt cops, social vigilantes, new age cultists, FBI agents, and informants and all seems connected to a boat called the Golden Fang. Or, he is simply looking for a missing girlfriend and a former rock star turned under-cover snitch. We can never be certain that there has been a crime beyond drug smuggling and murder, but too many criminals and investigators are involved for it not to be something significantly wider than that.
The plot is nested, like many of the classic P.I. films and after awhile, one has difficult keeping track of who is doing what, and trying to find out how the characters are connected becomes a chore. The movie opens with Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She is would like Doc to determine if the wife and boyfriend of her current lover, a real estate developer named Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), are plotting something that she should be involved in. She isn’t committing to protecting Wolfmann, but wants to know if she is going to be used and how bad the consequences might be. She goes missing soon thereafter. But in the meantime, other clients come forward who want something from him. Characters keep coming, and coming, and coming, to share information and make requests. By the end of the first hour, Doc may be “working” for a half dozen clients and in danger from a half dozen other characters. A second viewing is probably necessary to sort it all out, if one is at all curious.
However, plot is probably beside the point. The movie succeeds largely on presenting the mood of 1970 and the interactions of the characters within that setting. There is plenty of humor developed through dialog and Phoenix’s often deadpan reaction to the people he runs into. These aren’t round characters, but character types we have largely met before, who have difficulty sometimes explaining their motivations. They aren’t so much undeveloped as lost in the times.
Lost in the times is a good way to describe Inherent Vice as a whole. Yes, there is a tension created by trying to follow the mystery, hoping that there will be a payoff that almost certainly would come if Inherent Vice was a detective story. The story is more of a metaphor for the country as a whole during the early 1970s. The conventional characters are still there from the classic movies, but everything that was ideal from the mid 1960s and blown up in the late sixties is falling down in ways where the plot developments we are accustomed to no longer work. Something more sinister is brewing, as the establishment and crime colonizes the counter culture for profit and amusement. If a viewer feels lost and confused, that is exactly what is intended. It is exactly that feeling that everyone in the 1970s was going through that Thomas is trying to evoke.
Thomas, cinematographer Robert Elswit and the production crew overwhelm us in color and props that keep the movie interesting for awhile after the plot starts to spiral out of control. Those colors emphasize that this is a story about America by repeating a pattern of red, white and blue throughout the film. Most vividly, those patriotic colors are present when we finally are introduced to the Golden Fang for the first time – the white yacht with red sails on the deep blue seas. The ship that connects everyone into lives of crime, fear, corruption and real estate rip-offs is the country’s story at that time, largely adrift but sinister. Everything points to it as a problem, but what that problem is can’t be specified.
In the end, even Doc stops trying to make coherent sense of what is going on, even as he is involved in a large drug theft. There are murders and drugs, but since he hasn’t been hired to look into those, he stops short of taking on something bigger than himself. Instead, he reduces his quest to a few people he has met that matter to him. There is never a sense that its worthwhile exposing the truth as a good in itself. Instead, the movie invites the audience to lose interest and start following the colors as if on a depressing drug induced trip. One character, formerly straight-laced LAPD investigator “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Gary Oldman) reaches that conclusion late in the film. He’s probably begging us to follow him.
I wanted to like the movie more. There are many of humorous moments and performances. Phoenix, Oldman, Guermo del Toro and Martin Short keep the story afloat for awile. But the ship tends to start sinking under the weight of its own plot. Yes, Inherent Vice begs us to forget about all that and just lose ourselves, but two and one half hours may be too long to support that kind of concept. The movie has the trappings of a film that will inspire some kind of analysis in film studies classes, making it a potential academic cult classic. But general audiences who are looking for more thrills in their thrillers will probably take a pass.
IMDB: Inherent Vice