The theatre was dark. The house lights were still on, but if you’ve been to the Prince Charles Theatre in Leicester Square, you probably know what I’m talking about. There was plenty of excitement in the air. Just two days earlier Warner Bros. announced a surprise screening of Inherent Vice, from heralded auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, would be hitting London on Wednesday, November 19th. As just about everyone found their place in the bizarre, sort-of reverse stadium style seating, a man made his way up the left side aisle. No one paid much mind to it at first, but slowly, and then very quickly heads began turning, and an aggressive applause soon followed. Paul Thomas Anderson himself, the mastermind behind modern classics like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, had arrived. As the crowd sat in awe of their cinematic hero, myself included, Anderson briefly but warmly thanked everyone for being there and said, after giving a look around the dilapidated cinema, that he made the film “to play in places like this.” And after a nearly three hour voyage into the marijuana cloud that was late sixties Los Angeles, his proclamation was never more clear.
Inherent Vice tells the wild, seemingly random story of private investigator, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is thrust into the middle of the investigation into the disappearance of real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) after Doc’s ex-girlfriend, and Wolfmann’s current mistress, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), goes missing along with him. That sentence alone does not cover even half of Doc’s story, and that should tell you exactly what you’re getting into with Inherent Vice. The story is sprawling, with Doc navigating through multiple, intertwining cases that revolve around a mysterious ship named The Golden Fang. With the help or perhaps not of Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), his attorney Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), and his sometimes girlfriend, Penny an Assistant District Attorney (Reese Witherspoon), Doc finds himself in the middle of a pretty sticky situation.
Some may look at the trailer and see The Big Lebowski, but I assure you, that is not Inherent Vice. While the films undoubtedly share many similarities, given their Raymond Chandler-like origins and similarly muddled storylines, Vice is a little less silly than Lebowski and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, perhaps more grounded. The plots are equally ridiculous, but Inherent Vice, to a certain extent, seems like it could have actually happened, especially given Doc Sportello’s luck. The film also possesses a surprising emotionality and occasional darkness that was unexpected but certainly welcome. As the story progresses, and some of its questions are answered, or perhaps withdrawn, the audience begins to see that Doc isn’t solving the case of the missing Mickey Wolfmann, but rather that of his lost lover Shasta Fay. And when Anderson reveals Sportello’s obvious loneliness, it hits harder than you would expect for a narrative so goofy and vibrant.
The film, an ensemble affair like other Anderson masterpieces Boogie Nights and Magnolia, is filled with great performances from top to bottom, all of which anchored by Phoenix’s Sportello, who is brilliant as the film’s facilitator. Sportello is like the main character on a typical sitcom, he’s not always the funniest character in the room, but his presence is welcome and necessary to the narrative’s success. Aside from Phoenix, no other character is present for more than two or three scenes, with the biggest slices of screen time being dished out to Brolin’s Bigfoot and Owen Wilson, who plays the assumed dead saxophonist, Coy Harlingen. Brolin is exceptional, and worthy of an Oscar nomination, with his portrayal of the “renaissance detective” who has an affliction for hounding hippie scum like Sportello. I can’t remember the last time I have seen Brolin seem more alive in a role, who surprisingly scores some of the film’s biggest laughs despite his dramatic origins.
With Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson cements himself as perhaps the greatest casting director working today. This may be in part due to the fact that literally anyone who fashions themselves an actor is dying to be a part of his latest project, but that aside, Anderson perfectly picks and chooses from the cream of the crop to truly bring the world of Thomas Pynchon to life. The most rewarding and surprising performance comes unexpectedly from Katherine Waterston; previously seen in Michael Clayton, as the missing muse Shasta Fay Hepworth. Waterston is endearing and captivating as Shasta, convincing the audience of Doc’s obligation to her with relative ease.
The one gripe I have with Inherent Vice is Anderson’s extreme faith to the text. I understand that this is a rare complaint from anyone, especially when you’re adapting such a celebrated author in Pynchon, but a significant amount of the dialogue is ripped straight from the book, when perhaps something from Anderson, one of the most talented writer-directors working today, would have helped clear up the muddling narrative. But Pynchon’s novel is incredibly alive and undeniably brilliant, and respect must be given to Anderson for keeping the spirit of the novel in tact. The only issue with this being that Anderson seems to expect the audience to have a working knowledge of the narrative, an issue which has led Warner Bros. to produce a companion booklet, which was placed on every seat in the theatre, to help the audience navigate the intentionally complex and unsolved mystery. But at the end of the day, know that you’re not supposed to understand it, just enjoy it, and Anderson has created something that is never boring, downright hilarious, and incredibly fun.
Inherent Vice is released on January 30th 2015