His last two films may have taken us into the darker, more serious worlds of oil drilling and organized religion, but writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, throughout his career, has shown a purposeful flexibility with tone. Films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia have blended lines, finding a good number of laughs and oddity mixed in with the drama and tragedy, and Punch Drunk Love is very much an experimental take on the romantic comedy. Each new outing has provided the filmmaker a new wheelhouse to explore and conquer, but with his latest, Inherent Vice, Anderson may have found his strongest yet. It turns out that he has a genuinely perfect eye and ear for period-set stoner noir, and they have led him to make what is the best feature of his career to date.
Speaking purely through the noir fan perspective, there’s really nothing that Inherent Vice doesn’t offer. Setting up a wonderfully convoluted mystery ripped straight from the pages of the Thomas Pynchon novel it’s based on, the movie quickly launches the audience into the pot-smoke-hazed world of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective living in 1970s Los Angeles. Enter the enigmatic, femme fatale ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who hires Doc to investigate a plot involving the potential kidnapping of her millionaire, land developer boyfriend (Eric Roberts), and the story is off to races, sending Doc down a series of dark passages and in the path of an endless number of oddball and dangerous characters on both sides of the law.
Made with an apparent deep love of the hard-boiled detective genre, beautifully both utilizing and subverting elements of the style, the film is as funny as it is compelling, and while you may wind up losing part of your mind working to keep up with the endless twists and turns of its plot, it’s ultimately so entertaining and deeply satisfying that you’re immediately struck with the desire to reenter the world as soon as the movie ends.
In true noir fashion, the story of Inherent Vice is filtered entirely through the perspective of its lead detective character, resulting in Doc Sportello being featured in every scene – but Joaquin Phoneix effortlessly takes on this challenge and puts in a phenomenal performance. Cloaked in giant sideburns, oft-worn sunglasses and a panama hat, Phoenix entirely disappears into character from the instant he appears on screen and never emerges. Sequences rally between Doc being the straight man and the funny guy throughout the movie, and the star proves himself stunningly agile going between getting the laugh and having the perfect reaction.
As we’ve come to expect from P.T. Anderson, Inherent Vice has no shortage of fantastic supporting talent helping guide Doc through his investigation, and each one lends their own brilliant, specific strangeness to the proceedings. But while Martin Short is hysterical as a demented, coked-out dentist called Dr. Rudy, and Joanna Newsom is perfectly cast as the movies vaguely mystical, omniscient narrator Sortilège, it will undoubtedly be Josh Brolin that audiences walk away from the theater talking about. Playing the 1950s-style, flat-top-sporting, civil rights breaking Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, Brolin gives one of the most layered performances of his career, and it’s impossible not to smile when he is on screen. Far from just being your standard hard-nosed, fascistic cop, this character loves nothing more than to fuck with the stoner mind of our protagonist – whether it’s with random phone calls or a slowly-eaten chocolate-covered frozen banana – and Brolin does it with such incredible glee that you can’t help but crack up. At the same time, the door-busting detective also has a good dose of drama of his own, and the actor handles it with equal adeptness.
The natures of Inherent Vice’s characters and plot obviously dictate that the 1970 Los Angeles setting be a crucial element in the storytelling, and while one couldn’t expect anything less than amazing from Paul Thomas Anderson, the brilliantness of it still needs to be highlighted. More than just the production design and the costuming (both of which are also perfect), what the writer/director really stunningly captures is the very important feel of that particular era. This was a time when Charles Manson’s family had pumped heavy doses of fear into the air and the Vietnam War began to generate anti-authoritarian sentiment in the public, and Anderson imbues his movie’s atmosphere both in character subtleties and his well-honed filmmaking style. What’s more, the feature’s photography demands to be actually shown on film instead of digitally, as the added texture and grain offered by the format has an honest transformative era-specific effect on the feel of the entire thing.
If Inherent Vice has a flaw, it’s that it may lead some members of the audience to get a bit lost in the dense, personality-overflowing plot. And while I’d admit that a second viewing offers a good amount of clarity in the story department, the reality is that the film is a true triumph of character building and style that is also tremendously entertaining throughout.