“The term “inherent vice” as a phrase refers to a hidden defect (or the very nature) of a physical object that causes it to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of its components. In the legal sense, inherent vice may make an item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice.” – This is what Wikipedia has to say about what Inherent Vice means. Just keep this in mind.
The year is 1970 and Los Angeles Private Detective “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is up to his usual marijuana antics, when his recent ex Shasta (Katherine Waterston) comes asking for help. She’s involved with the condo king Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Robers), whose wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) is involved with another man and they have a plan to institutionalize Mickey and get his money.
As Doc starts to get involved in the case, he runs into his old buddy Sauncho (Benicio Del Toro) who informs him that Shasta is missing. Doc unravels more information after meeting Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), whose husband Coy (Owen Wilson) is presumed dead. That is, until Doc finds him and learns more about a group named “The Golden Fang”. Things get even more hectic when “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a cop who has it out for Doc, gets involved with Doc’s case. Where is Shasta and is she with Mickey?
Inherent Vice would make more sense under the title “Incoherent Vice”, as this film is all over the place with wacky characters and a convoluted plot which leave you in a daze. Chock-full of cooky characters who are more often than not doing drugs, this film meanders around a seemingly infinite number of sub-plots which try to bring the film full circle. There’s no shortage of good, albeit weird, performances in the film and they’re the majority of what keeps this film from being a total disaster. Still, I had a hard enough time following the film a first time and a second viewing didn’t impress me anymore than the first time had.
With Joaquin Phoenix as a lead character and Josh Brolin as the supporting lead, you know that you’re at least going to get something great out of them. Despite smoking endless amounts of marijuana in this film, Pheonix’s “Doc” is an unusually funny man whose detective skills end up helping others a whole lot. Phoenix’s quirky demeanor makes his character a memorable one, but it’s Brolin who really stands out as a hardass cop with a lot of anger issues. Brolin’s cop is totally off-the-walls, but he’s incredibly entertaining and Brolin always makes the best of his time on-screen.
With every other actor/actress in this film, they were all relegated to either cameos or less screen-time. Owen Wilson does pop-up quite often and his character and motivations are always changing, but he’s commanding with his words and even makes some great jokes. Benecio Del Toro is more audible than ever in a role that has him toned down, much like the calmness that exudes from the usually rowdy Jena Malone. Martin Short gets into excessive drug use, but it’s Katherine Waterston who surprises the most and manages to give the most natural performance in this zany film.
Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson never chooses simple projects and most critics and audiences are baffled by what he’s able to bring to the screen. There Will Be Blood and The Master are fairly straight forward, but this film feels like a lesser version of what you’d get when combining Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Anderson is all over the place and it doesn’t feel like he has a grasp on everything that he’s filming. The bizarre nature of the story is intriguing, but Anderson just can’t shape it into a whole film that excels on different levels.
From a story standpoint, Inherent Vice definitely fits into the world of quirky and it does have some appealing aspects to it. Unfortunately, two-and-a-half-hours of “he said this” and “who said what” gets more than obnoxious and the film starts to drag fairly early on. The audio seems a bit off, as it’s very difficult to hear much of the conversation that goes on in the film. Well, that and the fact that most of the characters mumble their lines. After two viewings of this film, the plot was still just as jumbled and the end resolve still felt mediocre and unearned.
Inherent Vice is as confusing as it is intriguing, but that still doesn’t make it a good film. It certainly has some good things about it, mainly the acting power, but there’s not nearly enough here to leave you feeling complete by the end. Rarely does Paul Thomas Anderson make such a big misstep, but Inherent Vice is just too obscure at its core. It’s trying to say too many things at once and it can’t even succinctly tell one story. Props to Phoenix, Brolin, and the rest of the cast for their dedication, as they’re just crazy enough that you might stick around to the end.
Inherent Vice Trailer