by Hope Madden
Where Inherent Vice most succeeds is in proving that both Joaquin Phoenix and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson can do anything.
Phoenix and Anderson collaborated on their 2012 masterpiece The Master, but the spawn of their latest partnership couldn’t be any more different. You know Phoenix – brooding, troubled, powerful – but comedic? Likeable? Sort of weirdly adorable, even?
That’s what you’ll find in this film.
Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an inebriated private detective working LA in 1970. Sweeter than Hunter S. Thompson, edgier than Dude Lebowski, Doc swims in the vaporous haze of every drug he can grab while he muddles through a series of interconnected and apparently non-paying cases.
Though the screen mostly brims with light hearted debauchery, expect a handful of truly powerful, even difficult scenes. Such tonal shifts can become cinematic weaknesses, but in hands like Anderson’s they pull in the darkness that underlies the choice or circumstances that delivers a person to this life on the fringes.
It comes as no surprise that Anderson can work magic where other directors might falter; the man’s a flawless filmmaker. He’s never made a film that was anything shy of brilliant. Even the Coen brothers made a handful of only-adequate films (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty). Not Anderson.
Not only can he direct, he can cast. Inherent Vice is an ensemble piece boasting a host of memorable if often tiny (and in some cases possibly imaginary) roles. Reese Witherspoon is a stitch as a straight laced assistant DA. She has a soft spot for loopy hippie PI’s, but draws the line at dirty feet.
Equally fun are Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and Martin Short. (Martin Short!) But Josh Brolin steals the show.
What each is doing can be a bit fuzzy, but then Doc’s usually a bit fuzzy, and therein lies the genius of this film. It opens, hardboiled noir-style, with a dame from the past showing up on this dick’s doormat with a story to peddle and a request to make.
But from there, puzzling out the details and conspiracies becomes as tough for the viewer as it is for the detective because Doc is as high as a kite.
Rather than a true mystery, the film offers a wonderful image of the political, social and cultural tensions of an era without pointing out that intention. It’s nutty, brilliant stuff.