More incoherent than inherent vice but fun nonetheless
Paul Thomas Anderson's film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel combines stoner comedy with murder mystery to entertaining effect.It's been twelve years since the talented writer/director last dabbled in humour with Punch Drunk Love, so the news he was making Inherent Vice was greeted with genuine excitement. To a large extent Anderson doesn't disappointment, delivering a deliberately complicated tale that, whilst somewhat incoherent, is often laugh-out-loud funny. Just don't expect the plot to make much sense; although that's really not the point, since the events are filtered through the dope-addled mind of its protagonist - Larry 'Doc' Sportello.The narrative isn't the only element of the film that's somewhat incoherent because Doc, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, mumbles his lines in true stoner fashion. However, it's a highly enjoyable performance that combines broad humour with moments of dramatic clarity. Doc is a decent man who tries to do the right thing even as his hippy dream disintegrates in the face of the oncoming 1970s. Events are set in motion by the sudden return of Doc's ex-girlfriend Shasta, played by Katherine Waterson, and before long he finds himself embroiled in various nefarious schemes.
The film is narrated by a friend of Doc's called Sortilege, played by Joanna Newsome, and her exposition helps keep tabs on the eclectic cast of players who drift in and out of the film. There's no shortage of unusually named characters to remember and, as always, Anderson has assembled an impressive group of actors. There's plenty of quality performers appearing in Inherent Vice, often only for a single scene, including Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone and Martin Short.
In more substantial roles are Owen Wilson as musician and ex-heroin addict Coy Harlingen, Reese Witherspoon as assistant DA and Doc's current squeeze Penny Kimball and Benicio del Toro as Doc's friend and occasional lawyer Sauncho Smilax. However the biggest relationship in the film is between Doc and Detective Christian 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen who, as played by Josh Brolin, is a wonderful comic creation - part straight-laced policeman with a poor civil rights record and part budding actor.
Despite a rambling plot, it's full of clever humour and entertaining performances.
Inherent Vice is reminiscent of a number of films including Robert Altman's adaptation of The Long Goodbye which pioneered the idea of a 1970s 'sun-drenched noir'. Although Inherent Vice is actually set in 1970 which, as any pedant will know, is in reality the last year of the 1960s. So in that sense there are also similarities with the sense of loss that permeates Withnail & I, as the optimism of the 1960s is replaced by the cynicism of the 1970s.
Of course the film that Inherent Vice will most be compared with is The Big Lebowski and whilst there are similarities, not least the stoner protagonist and comic murder-mystery plot, Anderson's movie stands on its own merits. The film manages to juggle witty one-liners and in-jokes with some fairly broad slapstick but the results are highly effective and often hysterical. It's also worth paying attention because, among all the belly-laughs, are some subtle gags such as an English rock band called Spotted Dick.
Anderson adopts an interesting directorial style, utilising a lot of long takes that slowly draw you into the action, and he also captures the look of movies from the late sixties and early seventies by shooting on 35mm film and choosing a suitable colour scheme. The result is a fascinating and entertaining film that manages to combine humour, pathos and character into a labyrinthine plot that reaches a satisfying conclusion, even if it isn't the one you expected. So just enjoy the ride and don't worry too much about the destination.
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