I had been looking forward to Inherent Vice for a while. I love Paul Thomas Anderson’s early movies (Boogie Nights is still one of my top movies from the 90s), but his two most recent – There Will Be Blood and The Master – leave me a bit cold. But my sister said that this one was his first “fun” movie in a while, so . . . Unfortunately, this was my second poor choice in a row.
I’d try to summarize the plot, but I feel unqualified – more on that later. That said, despite not enjoying it, I still found a lot to like. The cast is fantastic. And, as my wife commented, “who isn’t in this?” Everyone is perfectly cast. As usual, Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant under Anderson. I read an article recently that hypothesized that he’s not good in much else because he’s so talented that “lesser” directors don’t know what to do with him (a review of course I can’t find the link for). Not sure if I buy that, but Anderson certainly uses him well. Anderson’s direction is noticeably less showy than in previous outings. This lacked the scope and scale of The Master (although I suppose just shooting in 35mm instead of 70mm made that clear), but lacked the gimmicks of Boogie Nights. In contrast to the lengthy, Goodfellas-esque oner that opens Boogie Nights, the single take in this is so subtle despite its six minute length that I didn’t realize until almost the end of the scene that it was one shot. So even though I haven’t liked everything he’s done, that’s why I’ll still watch Anderson’s next film.
As singular as Anderson’s voice is, he seems to channel two/three other directors I love: the scene in the massage parlor screams Tarantino, and the deadpan absurdity of so many others seems like an homage to the Coen brothers. Not to mention the fact that, had The Big Lebowski not predated both this film and the novel it’s based on, I would have concluded that it was a dumbed-down version of Inherent Vice. That said, both Tarantino and the Coen brothers are more successful balancing the funny and the profound (or, in the case of The Big Lebowski, just the funny). Where Inherent Vice falls short is that everything is played so straight that it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s funny and what isn’t.
But maybe that’s not entirely the film’s fault. Its plot is challenging to say the least, and I devoted most of my time to just keeping track of it. Even after reading the summary on Wikipedia I’m still not sure I get it. And all that concentration left little brainpower to decipher the heavily mumbled dialogue. Apparently I’m not alone, as during one screening several walkouts occurred for the same reason. Finally, I just don’t think I was in the mood for a deadpan/absurd, stoner comedy/film noir. After trying to follow the plot and straining to decipher the dialogue for two hours, I wasn’t even laughing at funny parts anymore, let alone being moved at all. The irony is that the next day, while reading the aforementioned Wikipedia summary, I found two one sentence exchanges between the main characters that would have completely changed my viewing experience . . . had I heard and processed them.
So, rather than pass judgement this time, I’ve resolved to watch Inherent Vice again. Not anytime soon, and only when I’m in the mood and have the volume turned way up. Because I kind of dug what they were doing. As intricate as the plot is, it’s a great meta-commentary on a paranoid dope-induced conspiracy. Hopefully a pair of fresh eyes will allow me to enjoy it.