I have liked Paul Thomas Anderson’s films a lot in the past (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood), and Inherent Vice has a lot of the elements he is known for — a great ensemble cast, intertwining story lines, a sense of the world being off kilter. But in this case, it just never seems to come together. By the end of two and a half hours, you are as befuddled as the pothead protagonist, all the while thinking that it has to ultimately make sense. My suspicion is that adapting this (or any other) Thomas Pynchon novel seemed like a great challenge, since no one has done it before. But I think this film should serve as a cautionary tale for future screenwriters who think they’ll be the one who gets it right.
The story takes place in southern California in 1970. “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator living in a reefer haze at the beach, when his ex pops in to ask him to find her current boyfriend, a wealthy real estate developer who she believes has been committed to an insane asylum by his wife. Concurrent to his quest to find the BF, Doc is hired to find out what happened to a jazz musician (Owen Wilson) whose wife thinks he is dead, and the whereabouts of a bodyguard who owes the ex’s BF some money. As if there is just one world in LA, all the stories are really one story and at the center is something called The Golden Fang, which is both a sailboat and a drug cartel and maybe something else. And hampering Doc at every move is his nemesis, Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) a dirty cop and erstwhile actor.
I can’t really say what happens in this movie. There are some funny scenes, many bizarre incidents, and some narration that is probably intended to bridge the gaps. The cast is an amazing group of very talented actors: Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Jena Malone. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Martin Donovan, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon. Many of them are wasted in inconsequential roles, but no doubt PT Anderson is one of those directors that everyone wants to work with. I had high hopes for this flick, and I don’t mind being a bit lost during a movie, but at the end, I found Inherent Vice just too much style and too little substance.
Afterthought: I read the Wiki synopsis of the book. It makes more sense, though not complete sense.