“Inherent Vice” – Mike’s Review

Posted by Michael Parsons on January 9, 2015 in / No Comments


To some audiences (and I won’t profess to know who they are), “Inherent Vice” is probably that ingenious fusion of noir crime saga and culturally insightful stoner satire that is being hailed as “one of the best pictures of the year”. For the rest of us, who see very little substance behind the haze of bong smoke and dizzy astrological musings, I call BS. 

To me, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel — which, being only six years old, has garnered as much attention for being celluloid-unfriendly as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” because of Pynchon’s penchant for the esoteric — is what I’d imagine it would feel like to contend with a long, stubborn bowel movement while being doped out of my mind on street opiates.

inherent_viceIt’s 1970 Los Angeles. Our central character, a mutton-chopped, bohemian private eye named Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a visit from his ex-flame, Shasta Fay (an ethereal Katherine Waterston), who shows up with an unlikely story: She’s been sleeping with a wealthy, well-known real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who has gone missing. According to Shasta, Wolfmann’s wife and her “spiritual guide” boyfriend  have been conspiring to put the tycoon in a loony bin to gain access to his fortune, and they want her in on it.

Apparently, this is where her conscience draws the line. So, bound by secrecy (and I guess stupid in love, though it comes across more like he’s just perpetually dumbfounded), Doc accepts the gig, only to find that Shasta’s role is just a small part in a giant cog involving a mysterious syndicate called the Golden Fang, which has some sort of grand design to re-align L.A.’s patchouli-doused underbelly with the vague interests of an emerging right-wing movement. 

Despite what Doc’s placid, glazed-over demeanor might lead you to believe (musician Joanna Newsom’s omniscient earth child/narrator describes him as “the only doper she knows who doesn’t use heroin”), he’s extraordinarily crafty in his work. So much so that he’s often a step ahead of a gung-ho “renaissance” detective nicknamed “Bigfoot” (Josh Brolin), a hot-headed caricature who’s working a homicide case believed to be connected to the conspiracy. The cop’s crew-cut, perpetual scowl and derogatory prose are indicative of a serial civil rights-violator, but his pre-occupation with chocolate-covered bananas suggests that his brutish demeanor might really be an overcompensation for something else. The dynamic between the two is one of the more amusing aspects 124324_galof the film, but eventually, like most of the story fragments of “Inherent Vice”, it dissolves into an amorphous abstraction of an ever-broadening proportion. Something about a boat, drugs, sexual exploitation and the Aryan Brotherhood supposedly tie it all together.

Given this elaborate premise, it’s hard to believe that nobody really seems to do anything in the movie. It plays a lot like the telephone game: folks hear things and pass it on, and writer/director Anderson (“Boogie Nights”, “There Will Be Blood”) takes us on a circuitous two-and-a-half hour journey as if he’s more interested in the shifting cultural landscape than the central mystery. That would have made for a great film, perhaps, but this monotonous escapade has even less to say about the turmoil of the times than it does the motivations of its characters.

More frustrating, perhaps, is that an impressive ensemble is wasted on virtually lifeless characters. Doc is aided by a veritable sideshow of one-note acquaintances: the prim-and-proper deputy DA (Reese Witherspoon), an on-again-off-again fling whose best advice is for him to clean his feet (he doesn’t listen); his spacey personal lawyer, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro); and a diminutive masseuse/madame (Hong Chau), who first assists in framing Doc for a murder, but then helps him track down an o-INHERENT-VICE-facebookenigmatic ex-junkie (Owen Wilson) who is thought dead but ends up being some sort of deep cover agent.

There are too many other ancillary players to mention, and certainly too many to keep track of; I’ll note that the typically hilarious Martin Short plays a wacky dentist who somehow works into the plot at about the film’s mid-point, resulting in a drug-addled car ride that comes well short of the bizarre hilarity found in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Incidentally, this is where the movie lost me for good. 

The first half of the “Inherent Vice” is tolerable, even intermittently funny, as Anderson presents the first few pieces of the puzzle. It begins as a mildly amusing psychedelic caper, and as in “Nightcrawler” (another overrated film in my book), DP Robert Elswit creates an atmospheric L.A. of equal parts shady disquiet and tranquility. But “Inherent Vice” is ultimately undermined by its attempt to play it cool, becoming more brutally sluggish with each utterance of overly cryptic, mush-mouthed dialogue. Jonny Greenwood’s score is indeed far-out, but coupled with the sleepy pacing it will prove a sedative to some folks who haven’t gotten their full eight hours of sleep. 

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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