Review: Inherent Vice

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

inherent vice quad

PLOT: Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) – a pothead private eye operating out of L.A in 1970, becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine plot when he agrees to help out an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) who’s in trouble.

REVIEW: Watching INHERENT VICE is probably the closest you can get to being stoned without actually ingesting any drugs. It’s not just that our protagonist, Phoenix’s Sportello, spends pretty much the entire film stoned (to some extent) but also that the plot is so intentionally convoluted and insane that even the sharpest viewers will find it tough to decipher after one viewing. This isn’t DONNIE DARKO or UPSTREAM COLOR either, where things are vague or there is no answer. Everything that happens is straightforward, but so much is going on you’d have to stop the movie every few minutes to take notes to really follow it.

Inherent vice joaquin phoenix

Then again, this is Thomas Pynchon we’re talking about. While it’s complicated as hell, it seems likely that you’re not really supposed to be able to follow everything, as director Paul Thomas Anderson wants you to be somewhat clueless. As soon as you mellow out and just go with the flow (not unlike our hero Doc) the more you’ll enjoy yourself. For Anderson, this is the closest thing he’s probably ever made to a comedy, with it occasionally very funny, both in sophisticated, character driven ways, or even in the occasional pratfall from Phoenix.

If Anderson’s been channeling Terrence Malick the last few years, INHERENT VICE is his return to Robert Altman-style territory, with this having a whole lot in common with his seventies output. Phoenix’s mumbling, ‘out of it’ detective seems patterned after Elliot Gould’s unconventional Philip Marlowe from THE LONG GOODBYE. Phoenix dominates the film and makes Sportello into a likable hero. Like most film private dicks, he’s a good-hearted sort of guy; he just likes his weed (and laughing gas, and cocaine) is all. Phoenix even manages to imbue the character will a certain nobility, keeping him from ever becoming a joke – even if he is funny.

Inherent vice joaquin phoenix josh brolin

Nonetheless, Phoenix is just the tip of the iceberg in what’s got to be one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most impressive casts ever. From big parts to small, everyone’s cast to perfection. Josh Brolin is especially good, showing off comic chops which you wouldn’t expect as Sportello’s LAPD nemesis, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a part-time actor/ full-time psycho who delights in screwing with Sportello, possibly as a result of some repressed urges (you’ll never forget the sight of Brolin enjoying and gagging on a chocolate covered frozen banana). The other names tend to have smallish parts, with Benicio Del Toro nailing a handful of scenes as Sportello’s laid-back lawyer, or Reese Witherspoon as his Assistant DA fling. But, the prominent parts go to less well-known actors, like the winsome Katherine Waterson, as Doc’s ex-girlfriend/kept woman, Shasta. Meanwhile, Owen Wilson gets to play it mostly straight as a junkie musician turned indentured snitch. Of all of them, Martin Short comes closest to stealing the movie as a coked-up dentist Phoenix investigates in one memorable madcap sequence that’s like a stoned Marx Brothers sketch.

As usual for an Anderson movie, the behind the scenes talent is top-tier, with Johnny Greenwood contributing a memorable score that’s a far cry from his edgier work on THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER. It’s nice to see he has a varied style. Anderson’s usual DP, Robert Elswit is back behind the camera, although it’s a little disappointing that the film was shot “flat” in 1:85:1, as so many great films from that era (including Altman’s) went for the full 2:35:1 scope. Still, it looks pretty great, although it’s a far cry from the 70MM of THE MASTER (although that one was shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr.).

Inherent vice owen wilson

Given what a unconventional, eccentric private eye tale this is, INHERENT VICE will not be to all tastes. But, it’s certainly one of those movies that, if this is, as Bigfoot would say, “your bag” you’ll love. It certainly was for me, and like most of Anderson’s films, I bet it gets even better the second time around.

Inherent Vice



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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.