If there is a person that can bring the dense wordplay of author Thomas Pynchon to life it is writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Inherent Vice, the 1970 Los Angeles-set crime noir has layers of colors, tension, hilarity and rich character development that show that Pynchon and Anderson are an artistic match made from a drug-soaked, crime-laden heaven.
Anderson has had the most interesting of film careers. Boogie Nights is one of our favorite films of all time and we all know that Magnolia brilliantly pushes the boundaries and There Will Be Blood is a black gold of cinematic storytelling. He could not have chosen a better project for his latest film. We think that Inherent Vice isn’t his best, but oh, it’s right there.
Joaquin Phoenix is Doc, a private eye who adores his pot, yet still manages to crack his cases and even helps a veteran LAPD detective (Josh Brolin as Bigfoot) along the way.
His world is rocked, and our story is launched, when his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) walks into his beachside home asking for a favor. She needs him to look into how her boyfriend (who’s married) is worried about his wife and her lover getting ready to do something awful to him. Seeing as he is a real estate magnate worth hundreds of millions, they have every reason to worry.
When Doc starts digging he finds much more than he planned on. Like so many other Los Angeles crime films before (like L.A. Confidential and Chinatown), there is a whole lot here that a lot of people don’t want the public discovering, much less a stoner private detective who has the ears of an eager to prove himself LAPD detective like Bigfoot.
Anderson magically weaves a myriad of characters that Doc meets along the way in a manner that works so brilliantly for the big screen. That was one of the concerns for anyone who sought to adapt Pynchon’s book into a film. It wasn’t simply the richness of his prose that scared off many. It was this kaleidoscope of deeply grounded cultural archetypes that converge onto one landscape.
It certainly helps that the director charged with bringing the Pynchon cult classic to its cinematic form, also wrote it. And as we stated earlier, it is film fate that that person is Anderson. And as it is PTA (as many call him) that is the reason that so many actors commit to a project like this and we have a true ensemble worthy of the layered Pynchon souls from his pages.
Phoenix gives one of the best performances, if not the best, of his career. With his mutton chop sideburns and flippant demeanor that hides a quiet intelligence that is the key to this entire crime story unraveling, the actor finds depths of characterization that he has (believe it or not) only hinted at previously.
Brolin keeps astounding us ever more so with each passing role. His work on Inherent Vice is nothing short of a tour de force. Yet, he also keenly knows that this is an ensemble piece to a large extent and also a film that centers on Phoenix's Doc. Therefore, it is all the more impressive that Brolin has the restraint and rebelliousness to bring his Bigfoot to the elevated character echelon that is his stuck in the '50s soul -- as Pynchon painted him on his pages.
Then there is the supporting cast that revels in each moment they get to shine. Waterston makes an announcement of her talent and we cannot wait to see what she does next. Reese Witherspoon does the supporting thing radiantly as the DA who is Doc’s kind-of girlfriend. And then there’s Martin Short. We don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say he plays a dentist who may or may not be at the heart of this mystery. Then again, he might just be a nice and hilarious distraction.
Our Inherent Vice review can proudly state that we feel that this is a film that will easily land on our list of the best of 2014. The question that we’re still working on is: Is it one, two or three?