INHERENT VICE review by Mark Walters – Paul Thomas Anderson’s most awkward film yet

INHERENT VICE review by Mark Walters – Paul Thomas Anderson’s most awkward film yet

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I would consider myself a Paul Thomas Anderson fan, and I say that as someone who likes some of his films but not all. In my opinion, BOOGIE NIGHTS is still his best work to date, though THERE WILL BE BLOOD is very strong in its own right. Sometimes I find his movies to be only partially satisfying, like MAGNOLIA and THE MASTER, which both feature incredibly strong performances, but seem to have flawed narratives. My least favorite of his works is PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, which I’m very aware has its share of passionate fans – but that’s what is so great about movies being subjective, as one person’s beloved classic could be another person’s disappointment. His newest effort is INHERENT VICE, based on the book by Thomas Pynchon… it also may be his most awkward and disjointed film to date.

Set in 1970, in Gordita Beach, California, drugged-out detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets an unexpected visit from his former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s involved with a married man named Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and reveals the wife Sloane Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas) is trying to have him committed… and if Shasta keeps her mouth shut she’ll get money out of the scheme. Doc starts looking into some connections that may give him answers, but quickly finds himself left next to a murdered man who may or may not have been linked with Shasta, who is now officially missing. He’s questioned by Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a hippie-hating cop who also happens to also be a part-time actor, and takes an annoying interest in our hero. When Mickey Wolfmann vanishes, Bigfoot tries to connect it to Doc, though he has no proof to hold him, and Doc is released by his Marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq (Benicio del Toro). Doc begins to investigate various leads, each taking him into stranger and stranger territory. An unexpected distraction comes when he’s recruited by a woman named Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), who wants him to find her believed-to-be-dead husband Coy Harlingen, who she believes is still alive somewhere. This is a mysterious connection, as Shasta and Coy knew each other, and Hope received a large bank deposit the day Coy was presumed dead. Doc even calls upon his part-time squeeze Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), who tries to help but doesn’t want any official involvement. All of this eventually leads Doc to finding Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), alive and well but very much in hiding. But the real question is where is Mickey Wolfmann, and how do all of these elements connect to one another?

INHERENT VICE is a film comprised (mostly) of several scenes with no more than two people having odd conversations that lead slowly into the next story element. While this may work well in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, as a movie it just feels meandering and odd. The production features solidly inspired performances from most of the cast, but they’re all kind of lost in the trippy narrative. Each scene feels like it’s trying to enhance the web of mystery Doc finds himself digging into, yet it just feels frustrating and needlessly elaborated to the point of being self-indulgent and unsatisfying. Joaquin Phoenix occupies almost every frame, and is trying his best to make the character interesting, which at times comes close to working and almost saving the material. In the end it just doesn’t feel like a cohesive moviegoing experience, and prevents the film from being accessible, even if you feel like you’re in the mood for it. This project had what I considered one of the very best trailers of 2014, the kind of advertising you want to see for a movie, but the finished product isn’t what we were sold. This is Anderson’s first “comedy” since PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (if you consider that a comedic effort), and it may just be a case of him working best when things are serious.

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The supporting cast is made up of great faces, like Josh Brolin (who is a fun character to say the least), Martin Short (in a rather uncharacteristic performance) and Eric Roberts (who is important to the story but barely used), but all of these faces are just minor distractions from what is ultimately a confusing and at times frustrating experience. Even some of the more accomplished names like Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson never seem truly comfortable in their moments, making the end result a star-studded mess. The story is narrated by Doc’s friend/girlfriend Sortil├Ęge (Joanna Newson), who sports a spaced-out hippie chick voice that is equal parts annoying and out of place. It’s also a little ambiguous as to whether or not she actually exists or is just a visual manifestation of Doc’s mind – for example, in one early scene she’s sitting next to Doc in his car talking, then the camera reverses angles and she’s gone.

Anderson’s previous film THE MASTER was an off-balance production that was strongly executed with stellar performances, acted out so well it almost made up for the narrative shortcomings. INHERENT VICE never really excels at any aspect, and instead just comes across as awkward and uncomfortable for the audience. It’s a lot like watching THE BIG LEBOWSKI without the humorous beats hitting throughout… and that’s not to say it isn’t funny in parts, I definitely laughed a few times. The overall effect of the film just never seems to hit. Adapting the work of Pynchon is an admirable feat, but Paul Thomas Anderson can’t seem to find to right balance here, and the finished product is more of an experiment gone wrong than a memorable movie.

INHERENT VICE opened in limited release on December 12, 2014 and wide on January 9, 2015

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.