“If it’s a quiet night out at the beach and your ex-old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire- developer boyfriend, and his wife, and her boyfriend, and a plot to kidnap the billionaire and throw him in a loony bin…”
There was a lot of hype about Paul Thomas Anderson that I refused to believe for years. I thought Boogie Nights was pretty awesome, but the pretentious wank of Magnolia and the meandering bullshit of Punch Drunk Love left a bad taste in my mouth for a long, long time. Then, he made There Will Be Blood, a movie unlucky enough to come out the same year as No Country for Old Men. Which is the only reason it wasn’t the best movie of 2007. It was followed by the ambitious, scientology baiting The Master, and I was officially OK with people calling Anderson a genius.
So when I first heard a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie was on the way, I was automatically excited. Then I saw the trailer, and it quickly became one of my most anticipated movies of the year. There Will Be Blood and The Master were dark, brooding, serious and epic. But the trailer for Inherent Vice was goofy, cartoony and genuinely hilarious. In the end, it turned out to be an amazing trailer for a movie that’s not quite amazing, but still pretty good.
It’s 1970 and Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is getting high in his California beach shack. His ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), lets herself in and asks for his help. Doc is a private eye, and Shasta wants his help saving her new lover, real estate magnate Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). She thinks Wolman’s wife and her lover are plotting his downfall and wants Doc expose them.
Meanwhile, Doc is also hired by Hope Harlington (Jena Malone) to track down her thought to be dead husband, saxophone player Coy Harlington (Owen Wilson). All the while, he’s receiving help and tips from local brothel worker Jade (Hong Chau), including cryptic clues and warnings about something called the Golden Fang. And all along the way, Doc is under the watchful eye the over zealous, buttoned down super cop, ‘Big Foot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
All of that probably sounds convoluted and messy. And it is, which is kind of the point. Classic private dick, noir stories have a tradition of convolution, coincidence and contradictions. And here, it also works to put the audience on the same uneven footing as the perpetually high, dazed and confused Doc. Like The Big Lewbowski or Miller’s Crossing, too close scrutiny will probably reveal the odd loose thread with no explanation, but it just doesn’t matter. Not everything in Inherent Vice is supposed to make perfect sense, or come neatly wrapped with a bow at the end.
This is a world populated with ludicrously character names like Petunia Leeway, Buddy Tubeside, Suancho Climax, Rudy Blatnoyd, Chuck Beaverton and Crocker Fenway. It’s a world where every character is a ‘Doper’, or pusher, or pimp, or hard boiled cop. It’s a world of 70s sleaze and hippie idealism. It’s not quite as funny and goofy as the trailer had me thinking it would be, but Inherent Vice is a loose, random world we don’t see in movies often enough. It won’t be remembered as one of Anderson’s best, although after the seriousness of There Will Be Blood and The Master, it is a great reminder of how versatile he is a as a film maker and story teller.