Inherent Vice

Smoke on the Water

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin

Review written by Robert D. Patrick

Inherent Vice is a Rubik’s Cube comprised of sand and California sunshine. The thwacking reverberations of weathered sandals on heat baked concrete. Hushed whispers and drowsy head tilts form the hazy aesthetic. Paul Thomas Anderson eases off the pedal in a film that has the urgency of a swinging hammock. Based on novelist Thomas Pynchon’s book of the same name, Inherent Vice is a muddy and gossamer detective story with the heart of burning incense. Confusing, barbed, and physically comedic, Anderson’s opus is a balled up, pizza grease soaked napkin.

The plot is intentionally confounding, often times requiring a sieve to distill the lumpy diction and syrupy sentence structures. Joaquin Phoenix plays the bedraggled Doc Sportello, a private eye with plumes of facial hair and a lackadaisical vocal delivery. He shuffles his feet, wears droll olive green jackets, and uses staccato methods of interrogation to get his way. Phoenix spins like a dreidel, when hit, and finds himself doing faceplants into street corners and wooden floors. He’s half cartoon, half man. Because of the actor’s comic timing and physical buoyancy, Inherent Vice’s befuddling plot becomes an afterthought; Phoenix is the only thing that matters in Pynchon’s house of mirrors.

Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), Doc’s ex-girlfriend, is a sort of ethereal muse. She appears in shadows and lords over Sportello’s cloudy mind. Waterston’s wry smile and indolent delivery give the film a sort of murky reverence and mysticism. Another actress may have botched the groggy idiosyncratic turn as Phoenix’s watercolored siren. To perforate the fuzzy and delusional nature of its lead characters, Inherent Vice gets the cold heels of steely dissonance in the form of detective Bigfoot Bjornson (Josh Brolin). Rigid and scowling, Bjornson puts a lint roller over the sooty appearance of Sportello and his cohort. The casting works on many surfaces, even though Reese Witherspoon’s turn as a deputy DA is somewhat distracting. Pynchon’s inebriated craftsmanship comes to life – with better precision than you may imagine – as the actors in Inherent Vice buy into the author’s carnival of smoke.

Inherent Vice’s polarizing aesthetic and unconventional narrative will enrage some viewers; lure others in; and make a few people confused. The film is all mood – phantoms and detached laughter. Though having the occasional pacing problem, there is a sort of displaced charm to the proceedings. The sun baked shoreline and brume of smoke will ease you into the listless fold. Anderson’s newest film is animated – and sometimes even meandering – but the wafting ashes of deliberate laziness are contagious. Go in for Phoenix’s wonky performance, and you may find a soiled puzzle piece or two worth holding onto in the process.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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