I genuinely wonder if one has to be under the influence of drugs to understand — or to stop caring about understanding — Inherent Vice. Here is a movie that is incomprehensible and impenetrable, runs for about 30 minutes too long, and is also very funny and contains great performances. Trying to make sense of or keep track of the plot is futile. You have to hope that its perpetually stoned protagonist is going to figure out everything in the end, whether of his own volition or the people around him who help him along the way.
That protagonist is Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective who works out of an actual doctor’s office, I wager because that’s where they keep the laughing gas and pills. One night, at home, he’s approached by an old girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who tells him that she needs his help. For what? I’m not exactly sure, and it doesn’t really matter, since the case turns out to be different from what he expects anyway. It involves missing people, and eventually drugs. I can’t say any more because I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Along the way he meets or continues relations with rather interesting people. He has a rival, who either has his mutual respect or disdain, a cop named “Bigfoot” (Josh Brolin), who always seems to have a phallic object in his mouth. An undercover man named Coy (Owen Wilson), who has been undercover for so long that he probably doesn’t even know who he’s currently working for, is supposed to be dead, but clearly isn’t. He’s dating the Deputy D.A., Peggy (Reese Witherspoon). He has a lawyer friend (Benicio Del Toro) who specializes in sea law. Oh, and the film is narrated by Joanna Newsom, who also appears in the film primarily as hallucinations.
It’s a detective story. The case is irrelevant. Primarily we go from place to place, watch Doc smoke a joint or six, sometimes find out information, hope that both he and we will be able to remember that information, and then drive over to somewhere or someone else and repeat the process. One could theoretically piece it all together if they had a paper and a pencil, and also the patience to watch Inherent Vice more than once, which I wager most people won’t be able to do.
It’s mostly incoherent, indecipherable, and impenetrable. My hope is that director Paul Thomas Anderson is aiming to make us watch the events unfold as his protagonist feels them, which is in a hazy blur with far too much information and an incredibly slow pace. There’s about 90 minutes of actual plot here that’s stretched out to two and a half hours, primarily because you don’t move particularly fast or with much determination when you’re constantly high on dope.
Inherent Vice is based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, and is by all accounts is a relatively accurate adaptation. I haven’t read the novel and have no interest to after having seen the film, although it might be easier to figure everything out when you have the option to re-read sections and jot things down at your leisure.
Joaquin Phoenix has all of the insanity and quiet intensity to work both as a druggie hippie and also as a private investigator. He combines both into this one character and compels us to watch him. He elevates the film with his performance. Everyone else is good, but he’s the one that stands out and actively turns what could have been a disaster with a lesser actor in the role and makes something memorable out of it. His reactions to some of the events add humor, too. One scene near the end works as well as it does because of his reactions.
Inherent Vice is a film that you don’t even need to try to follow, since you won’t be able to and since the plot is ultimately irrelevant. It’s about the mood, the setting — 1970s Los Angeles feels almost like its own character — the absurdity, and the performances. Trying to follow the detective story is fruitless. It didn’t need to play for two and a half hours, and its incoherence will frustrate a lot of people, but Inherent Vice is funny enough to work as a comedy and contains at least one performance — although they’re all good — that you need to see.