Film Review: Inherent Vice

The inherently quirky have a new favourite vice

The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) loose adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is somewhat misleading. While we’re apparently being sold a madcap comedy crime caper in the vein of Elmore Leonard, that’s not what we end up getting. Although it is – partly. 

Those expecting a return to the wacky tone of Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love are likely to be disappointed – whereas those hoping for a complex, austere drama as evidenced in his most recent work may also be left wanting. The best way to see Inherent Vice therefore is to expect nothing – and be prepared for anything.

The plot/smoke thickens
Set in sunny California at the end of the 1960s – a time when Nixon was president, both Charlie Manson and the FBI became spookily omnipresent, ladies’ skirts were worn short and a man was considered a hippy the moment his hair met his shirt collar. Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, a hairy, hapless private investigator who perceives everything through a smog of hashish and alcohol. 

Like many good gumshoe mysteries, this one begins with the re-emergence of an ex-lover, Shasta (Waterston), who having got herself and her current lover caught up in some unsavoury business, which she needs some help getting out of it. The catch is that her current lover is Michael Wolfmann (Roberts), who also happens to be an aggressive real estate developer and one of the richest men in the state. Following Doc’s initial meeting with Shasta, both she and Wolfmann disappear. Soon after, Doc sits listening to a new client (Williams – Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White) while making notes. We see him scrawl “Paranoia sets in” – the best primer you’ll get for everything that follows.

California tripping
Much of the film exists in its own mysterious hash cloud – a stoner noir, evocatively scored by Anderson regular, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Narratively, little appears to add up and yet Phoenix’s everyman PI is eminently likeable and, much like Elliot Gould’s detective in Robert Altman’s seminal The Long Goodbye (1973), Doc Sportello is the thread who carries us through the haze. 

Doc’s horror or bemusement at everything he encounters mirrors our own – in such a satisfying manner that we readily surrender to him as our vehicle for this increasingly strange journey into Anderson’s intoxicating puzzle.

Warrants multiple viewings
Phoenix is well served by the director’s typically strong support cast, particularly the quietly spoken Owen Wilson, whose character’s sense of hopelessness gives a resonant weight to the proceedings (not least because of the actor’s well-publicised struggle with depression). Similarly, James Brolin as LAPD detective Bigfoot is an amusing arch-nemesis, a fallible foil who brings a surprising amount of pathos to his role as this sharply-dressed, woefully-repressed, crew-cut counterpoint to Doc’s dope-head.

I won’t pretend to know how one should read Inherent Vice – but of this I’m certain: Anderson has crafted a hypnotic fever dream of a quality that rivals the best of his previous works – albeit of an altogether different, genre-defying ilk – and it is one that will warrant multiple viewings. I look forward to taking this trip again.

Inherent Vice


Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson; US comedy/thriller, 2014, 148 mins; Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams

Premiered Feb 12

Playing Nationwide 

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