AFI Review: Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, which has been adapted for the screen by Director Paul Thomas Anderson, makes its debut adaptation to a seemingly disappointed audience with a few exceptions.

In 1970, within a California beach community, protagonist private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, usually works his cases through a smoky haze of marijuana making most of his discoveries dazed and confused. That is until Shasta, Doc’s former lover, is thrusted into seeking out Doc’s detective skills for help in an attempt to stop Shasta’s current insanely rich real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann from being committed to a mental hospital by his wife in a plot to steal all his money. Later Wolfman and Shasta both disappear leaving Doc to uncover a criminal money making stoner scheme.

In an attempt to stray a little from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Anderson’s adaptation briefly encounters the use of narration to incorporate sections from Pynchon’s unnamed narrator in the novel. In the film Anderson has given this narrator a female identity, which in turn has transformed a miniscule character named Sortilège, portrayed by Joanna Newsom, into an on screen character from the moment we catch a glance at Sortilège in the opening scene. While Anderson is usually conflicted about using voice-over in his films here it seems almost essential as she leads us through the story of Doc and Shasta — from what appears to be a future point in time.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson and Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s decision to shoot this picture on film, opposed to digital, has definitely done the feature justice relating to the culture of the decade. Anderson and Production Designer David Crank have both also produced sensational scenery in the many varied locations and interiors, which the film uses and despite the long conversations and monologues employed Anderson’s style of keeping the camera in a slow zooming motion makes it bearable and almost unnoticeable.

Straying into the rarely paralleled 148 minutes runtime, for the already sleepy the film viewer Vice emits a dream like effect. Almost similar to the post-watching feeling that the entire picture was a trance, which is vaguely similar to the after tone of watching Johnny Depp’s ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’. Whilst the first hour is not intriguing in the slightest with only partially comedic moments, hanging in there till the last narration makes the film leave you with a sense of fulfillment — even if you’re not quite certain of the story you just witnessed. Upon a second watching the film’s narrative does begin to become if only marginally more clear and followable.

Despite the numerous disappointments that Inherent Vice has brought upon us, acting is certainly not amongst them, with the productions superb and seemingly endless cast which includes Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short and Sasha Pieterse. Looking to the movies of the 1970 and the american new wave of cinema for inspiration Joaquin Phoenix, undertook some physical changes, to create his 1970 character private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello, including shoulder length hair and sideburns.

Another first for Anderson – While Phoenix appears in almost every singular scene and Anderson usually focuses mainly on the male perspective the voice-over narration leans the film to focus more on the woman within the film mainly of which is Shasta Fay Hepworth, portrayed by Katherine Waterston.

Implementing the era of the early 1970’s, from which the novel is based, this crime drama’s soundtrack uses songs from the late 1960s with songs from Neil Young, Can, and Chuck Jackson and featuring original songs from three time Anderson film composer Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

While on award season territory, Inherent Vice has a great chance at achieving multiple nominations. Although, the film is unlikely to see any victory outside of the Supporting Acting, Adapted Screenplay, Costume and Production Design categories. As regardless of the obviously strenuous effort, in compiling the sets, attitudes and performances to the tune of the 1970s, overall from a first time viewing perspective the film lacks that ability to keep most viewers watching past the first hour, which will definitely impact the features chances at achieving success at the box office upon Inherent Vice’s limited theatrical release on December 12th and followed by its wide release on January 9th. In the face of the dwindling prospects for Vice, Anderson has achieved the film from which he was aiming for and hopefully that will be something that audiences gather from watching the film.

While under-satisfying until the bitter end, Inherent Vice felt almost like a waking dream. Even with a narrative which is strangely hard to follow, you can’t resist being intrigued, wondering where this series of events will lead and what could be lurking in the following scene. However, Anderson’s adaptation certainly isn’t for the impatient audience, mainly as the majority of the picture could feel slightly off putting and difficult to follow. The film does include as series of brief comedic moments, mainly featuring Phoenix’s “Doc” being pummeled or used as bait by Lieutenant Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin. However, the tone of the film is mainly dramatic and action.

In spite of the lengthy complex scenario which Inherent Vice explores, the film is certainly a must watch for Paul Thomas Anderson film admirers and is a great midnight film.


About the Author


James Rush Editor-in-Chief of Tastic Film Magazine.