Inherent Vice (R) ★★

Joaquin Phoenix stars in "Inherent Vice." Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Joaquin Phoenix stars in “Inherent Vice.” Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Hippy Mystery Will Leave Audiences in a Fog

Inherent Vice is a detective story set in the early 1970s in Southern California. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel by the same name, this is the first film adaption of any work by Pynchon who has shunned the media since the 1960s, but is a giant in literary circles for his complicated, counter-culture tales.

The adaptation is directed by P.T. Anderson whose goal was to be as faithful as he could to the source material and employ a huge cast in the process. Unfortunately, for Anderson who has been a film critic’s darling since his breakthrough Boogie Nights (1997), this story may have been too difficult to adapt for the screen and does not take advantage of the strong cast and exceptional skills of its director.

This hippie film noir stars the extremely gifted actor, Joaquin Phoenix (Her, 2013), as a stoner-turned private investigator, Larry “Doc” Sportello. The movie opens when Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson, You Must Be Joking, 2014), shows up at his place asking him to help her find her boyfriend, Michael Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, 2008). Wolfmann is a big-shot L.A. real estate developer whose wife and her lover are trying to have him committed against his will due to eccentric behavior from his increasing drug use.

Doc, who is nicknamed due to his office being located in a doctor’s office, takes the case and is soon exposed to a wide assortment of characters and wild situations. In addition to the search for Wolfmann, Doc is asked to look into the death of a musician, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014), whom Coy’s wife believes is still alive. While Doc follows up on his leads and starts to unravel the mystery that includes a drug cartel, hippie enclaves, and a white supremacist biker gang, he also has to deal with the FBI and the LAPD, including his long-time nemesis, detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Bigfoot, played by Josh Brolin (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, 2014), despises Doc and all things hippie and is constantly antagonizing Doc at every turn. Helping Doc are his maritime attorney played by Benicio Del Toro (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014), his new D.A. girlfriend, played by Reese Witherspoon (Wild, 2014), and his secretary played by the director’s real-life wife, Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids, 2011). The story takes so many turns and introduces numerous characters. Any viewer that did not read the book will leave confused within ten minutes.

This crime-drama has a lot of similarities with The Big Lebowski (1998), although more twists and characters with half of the humor. Despite the overly complicated plot, the film does boast great acting from its huge cast. Phoenix does an excellent job of playing the pot-smoking Doc, but it’s hard to build a strong rapport with his character as it is difficult to understand his agenda and sometimes even what he is saying. The rest of the cast turns in strong performances as well, including Wilson, Witherspoon, and Martin Short, as a drug-addled dentist pursuing his young female patients.

Anderson’s visual style is still appealing, and the score from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood helps pace the film. Unfortunately, the plot is too confusing to truly enjoy it.

Bottom Line? Inherent Vice is likely best viewed with the expectation that you will be confused and not know what is going on at any given moment. Unless you are an avid Pynchon fan, this film is not worth the investment.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Doc Sportello), Josh Brolin (Bigfoot Bjornsen), Owen Wilson (Coy Harlingen), Reese Witherspoon (Penny), Benicio Del Toro (Sauncho Smilax), Jena Malone (Hope Harlingen), Maya Rudolph (Petunia Leeway), Martin Short (Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd), Katherine Waterston (Shasta Fay Hepworth), Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts)

Credits: Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay); Thomas Pynchon (novel)

Studio: Warner Bros.

Run Time: 148 minutes

Jessica Aymond © December 29, 2014