To say that Inherent Vice may be Paul Thomas Anderson’s weakest movie is to undersell its many pleasures. Yes, Inherent Vice is shaggy, meandering, and more than a little sprawling, and trying to follow its plot is a bit of an exercise in futility. But the fact that it’s Anderson’s weakest has less to do with the film – which offers far more pleasures than the above comments might imply – and more to do with his incredible filmography. When your films include The Master, There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and more, failing to crack the top few isn’t really as much of an issue as it might be with someone else. (It’s basically the same problem Hail Caesar! has – by Coen standards, it’s lesser, but on its own, it’s a joy.)
Mind you, I’m probably predisposed to enjoy Inherent Vice, given that it resembles nothing so much as Paul Thomas Anderson doing The Big Lebowski. Both films are basically homages/parodies of the Raymond Chandler style Los Angeles mystery, complete with sprawling, labyrinthine motivations, colorful supporting characters, rambling private eye, and observational narration. More than that, both do all of these things with a sense of humor, poking holes in its own grandiose story while winking at the audience and allowing a slew of character actors the freedom to bring their characters to life.
But while Lebowski is laid-back and passive to the point of being meandering, Inherent Vice finds a focus and motivation in its main character, Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix in a fantastic, enjoyable performance. Unlike the Dude, Doc is a legitimate private detective, one who’s keenly interested in getting to the truth. And when an ex shows up at his house worried about a man she’s involved with, Doc can’t help but start digging. Add into that a client who asks him to track down a friend from prison, and Doc slowly finds his way into a massive conspiracy involving smuggling, dentists, missing musicians, informants, drugs, insane asylums, the LAPD, and more.
Let’s get this part out of the way: following the story of Inherent Vice is a fool’s errand. To call it “sprawling” is an understatement; at various points, there’s so much going on, so many feints and bluffs, that you find yourself just drifting along and enjoying the vibe of the film – a laid back, somewhat mournful look at Los Angeles, people’s reactions to the past, and more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – after all, there’s the infamous murders in The Big Sleep that no one knows who committed. No, a complicated plot is forgivable as long as the film itself is enjoyable, and Inherent Vice delivers on that front and then some. The cast is uniformly excellent, and wonderfully deep, with great performances by Michael Kenneth Williams, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, and Martin Short, just to name a few.
But even with the great cast, it’s worth taking the film to single out Josh Brolin as LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. Playing the straight man to Doc’s medicinally-induced ways, Brolin makes a perfect foil for Phoenix, and any scene between the two men is wonderfully hilarious to watch unfold – and that’s before Bigfoot starts yelling at the cooks at a diner, or we start seeing his home life. It makes for a great variation on the “police” presence in movies like this, and allows Brolin another chance to add to the highlight reel that is his recent career.
Ultimately, the biggest knock against Inherent Vice is the sense that it’s not quite “about” anything. Yes, it’s about families, and love, and LA, and guilt, and all those sorts of things, but ultimately, it’s a film about mood and the performances. And yet, I can’t complain too much about it, not when it’s all done this well, provides this many great moments (including one scene that’s the hardest I’ve laughed in a very long time, involving nothing more than Phoenix’s reaction to a picture), and engages you so well with its style and mood. No, it doesn’t hold up against There Will Be Blood…but so what? That doesn’t make it any less of a joy to watch, and another gem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic, flawless career.