Inherent Vice Good Adaptation of 70s Noir Novel


Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice

In the first scene of Inherent Vice (set in the early ‘70s), our main man, private detective/stoner Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a visit from an old girlfriend of his, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She tells him that her boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann may be committed to an insane asylum by his wife, and she wants his help with foiling her plot. He agrees, and after the conversation, he walks her back to her car for protection and watches her drive off. The credits start up, set to “Vitamin C” by Can, as Doc walks away in one of many long takes in the movie.

That was when I knew I loved this movie.

It was such a small, simple, and insignificant scene only meant for the credits, yet director Paul Thomas Anderson, in all of his movie making genius, managed to find the perfect song to fit the scene. It captures the mood and pace of the scene exactly as it needed to be, in a way no written score could have, and sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It’s just simply awesome.

The rest of the movie’s great too, not just the first five minutes. But describing the plot is easier said than done, considering that it’s an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. It is the first one of his to get an adaptation, and for a good reason too. He’s a good writer, but a dense one, so all his works have way too much plot to make it to the silver screen. Except, of course, Inherent Vice, which is still a dense piece of work, but an easier one to tackle.

Loosely, Doc investigates Wolfmann, while at the same time tracking down Glen Charlock for Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams), for whom he owes money. During the investigation, he’s knocked out, wakes up to Charlock’s dead body, and finds out Wolfmann has disappeared. So while trying to resolve that, he also gets tangled up with an undercover FBI agent (Owen Wilson), who was presumed dead, and fears for his life and wants out. And despite all these plot threats seeming to be going in all different directions, it seems everyone Doc meets is connected to someone else. There even seems to be a larger force at play looming over everyone, the Golden Fang. What is it? A gang? A drug rink? A boat? A plot for tax evasion made by a couple of dentists? Who knows, all anyone seems to know is to be scared of it.

Sound confusing? Yeah, kinda. That seems to be the main complaint with viewers, but it’s not nearly as hard to follow as some say. Sure, it is a lot to take in, but I for the most part I could follow it. I knew who was who and what was going on in each scene. And yes, there are some plot points I didn’t understand, but nothing a second viewing couldn’t clarify for me.

And that’s exactly what I plan on doing. It seems that with every new P. T. Anderson movie there requires a new level of attention and thought. His last movie, The Master, divided many viewers for this exact reason. It was an abstract, challenging piece of filmmaking. Those devoted to it (myself included) found it deeply intriguing, engrossing, and affecting (that last part probably due to the fact it was one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final movies, but that’s a different story). Inherent Vice is no exception. I knew immediately after the end credits I wanted to see this again. There’s just so much to see and take in, so much to appreciate, that it’s impossible to get it all in one viewing.

Every scene feels like it’s own little movie, like they’re all a collection of short stories with overreaching themes. Each one is perfectly composed, paced, acted. Speaking of which, P. T. Anderson keeps up his reputation as one of the best actor directors around. Joaquin Phoenix is typically awesome, adding another great performance to his post-I’m Still Here comback. Josh Brolin also gives one of his best performances ever as “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Doc’s hippie hating partner. I honestly could watch a whole movie with just those two; their interplay and chemistry is pitch perfect. Newcomer Katherine Waterston manages to shine in her role. But for my money, the standout is Martin Short as drugged up dentist Rudy Blatnoyd. It’s been awhile since Short has been this funny, and his five minutes is some of the funniest movie scenes of the year.

To top everything off, Anderson finds the perfect soundtrack to match his beautifully shot movie (by Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit). Aside from the 60’s and 70’s songs, the score is composed by Jonny Greenwood (the Radiohead guitarist). He’s becoming somewhat of an Anderson regular, composing the last three of his movie’s scores; There Will be Blood, The Master, and now this. Hopefully he continues to do so, because he consistently hits it out of the park with them. It’s soft and sad, yet upbeat and sweet, I could listen to it all day. It’s the icing on the cake for another solid effort from Paul Thomas Anderson.

Inherent Vice is not for everyone, but you know what? Good. It’s not supposed to be. If it was, that would mean Anderson would have to compromise his vision to make it commercial. So what if it’s unusual, and hard to follow. He’s doing something more filmmakers need to be doing-he’s doing something different. And as long as he continues to keep his vision uncompromised, I’ll find myself looking forward to each new product of his imagination.