Published Dec 23, 2014If you put a pot-addled private detective at the centre of a complicated plot involving kidnapping, drug smuggling and police corruption, and then tell that story from the pothead's point of view, coherence is not going to be one of the results. But given the deft hand possessed by director P.T. Anderson, who follows The Master with his quickest turnaround between films ever, the lack of coherence is the point. Or at least not a hindrance to the point, which seems to be "Let's watch Joaquin Phoenix play a stoner. It's mesmerizing."
To even attempt a plot synopsis of the 1970-set film based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon is a little absurd. Phoenix plays addled P.I. Larry "Doc" Sportello; he's visited by an ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who's concerned that her current boyfriend Mickey's other girlfriend and her lover are plotting to have Shasta's rich beau institutionalized. Doc's old LAPD nemesis "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) comes after Doc when peripheral figures start turning up dead and target Mickey (Eric Roberts) disappears.
Through a constant haze of pot smoke come various figures: Owen Wilson as musician Coy Harlingen, who's supposed to be dead but maybe isn't; Reese Witherspoon as high powered lawyer Penny Kimball, with whom Doc is intimate; Martin Short as a drug-crazed sex fiend. The parade of talent is impressive, even if connecting the threads of the plot or character relationships verges on impossible.
Yet at the centre is Phoenix, a blurry, giggly crossover between era-appropriate Neil Young (giant mutton shop sideburns) and John Belushi. He's the centerpiece that makes Inherent Vice compelling to watch and as he good-naturedly doesn't comprehend his surroundings, that extends to us as well. We're as happily on this hazy journey as he is and we, collectively, are barely putting the pieces together. And it's not like Anderson is willy-nilly ignoring Pynchon's storytelling map — the points are all there, but in presenting them through a stoner's perspective, they're just a little slippery.
Inherent Vice is the result of the fastest turnaround in Anderson's career, rivalled only by the three years between Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, another transitional movie with a star (Adam Sandler) asked to do the opposite of what's expected. And in some ways, Inherent Vice seems like a palate cleanser after The Master, and perhaps a sign of yet another transformation for Anderson. Or it's destined to be a beloved curio in an otherwise hall of fame career.