Usually, a film’s plot or lack thereof is something I can rant on for hours about. Usually, if the plot doesn’t work, the film doesn’t work. That said, this is not a usual film, and I can say with absolute confidence that the plot of INHERENT VICE does not matter. Don’t get me wrong, I tried to follow it, but soon realised that knowing what was going on wasn’t actually adding to the viewing experience. It’s one of the most plotless plotty films around and all the better for it.
Drug-addled PI “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) takes on a trio of cases from unusual clients, all the while with obsessive Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) breathing down his neck, and his ex Shasta (Katherine Waterston) reappearing on the scene with clear ulterior motives. As the plot strands converge and the truth gets increasingly lost in Doc’s inebriated haze, what has and hasn’t happened, as well as who was ultimately responsible for what becomes increasingly unclear.
Inherent Vice ends up being one of, if not the, funniest films of 2014. Through Doc’s drug-blurred perspective we witness a cast of eccentrics stumbling through life and looking hilarious while they do it. Phoenix has the perfect part-transcendent, part-comatose stare, you can just imagine what Doc’s personal hygiene routine doesn’t include, and he makes for a really good comic foil to the nonsensical plot. Phoenix flexes comic muscles we never really knew he had, proving himself a master of both a naturalistic incomprehensible drawl and exaggerated pratfalls. Who else but Paul Thomas Anderson would see his comic potential, especially after the harrowing THE MASTER?
Brolin too has a lot of fun as Bigfoot, another very amusing character, but one who has absolutely no inkling that he’s funny. I don’t think I’ve laughed harder this year than I did at how this hard man eats what I think was a chocolate-covered banana (somehow keeping a straight face) while ferrying Doc back to the police station. Katherine Waterston plays Shasta as magnetic and enigmatic enough to rival any noir femme fatale, a character who seems to exist on an entirely different plane to everybody else. She’s almost supernaturally in control of herself in this world of the lucky and the foolish. Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon turn up in colourful fleeting roles seemingly just so they can tick “worked with Paul Thomas Anderson” off their bucket lists.
The film reminded me most of Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, only our gumshoe is more inept and addled, but still actually seems to care more about solving the mystery at hand. Elliot Gould’s take on Marlowe, as great as it was, never really seemed to be all that bothered if he got to the bottom of his case, it was all “OK with me”. Doc is handicapped by his substance abuse and the general battiness and unpredictability of pretty much everyone he encounters, but he ultimately wants to succeed, to do his job well. Of course you could actually follow what was going on in the inky blackness of The Long Goodbye. Even Inherent Vice’s stoner-noir cousin THE BIG LEBOWSKI looks positively coherent in comparison, but the individual disjointed scenes in Anderson’s film are arguably more vivid and memorable than Altman’s or the Coens’. All three noirish efforts share an aim to deconstruct the nebulous idea (not genre) that is film noir and its common conventions. Boiling it down, it’s all about evoking a feeling – whether comic, darker, or a bit of both – of unease.
Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t do short movies. His films are an experience, pure and simple, and appropriately enough, his latest seems to be constantly asking us, “are you experienced?” Inherent Vice is a trip in every sense of the word, and while you might feel a little fazed, dazed, and fizzled out at its conclusion, hopefully you will feel it was a worthwhile trip. It’s certainly the most cheerful, outright enjoyable thing in Anderson’s filmography, and as long as you don’t require coherency and neat resolution in your stories, it’s likely it’s a film that will stay with you for the foreseeable future. It’ll stay with me, even if I don’t entirely remember what, if anything, was solved in the end. SSP