NO SPOILERS. You can't spoil a plot no one can understand.
I can't recommend "Inherent Vice," but neither can I say that, on balance, I did not enjoy it. I did; not a lot, but it passed the looking-at-my-watch test. (That is, I didn't.) Only a couple of the .few viewers at an early showing walked out.
The movie directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. I suppose I could stop the review right there, because any film attempting to capture Pynchon's, shall we say, oblique approach to plot is going to face some challenges. Interestingly, however, the novel is reputedly one of the writer's more conventional efforts. Strange then that the movie is so baffling.
Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator in 1970 Los Angeles. He smokes a tremendous amount of dope, and there is scarcely a character in it that is not stoned or worse a fair amount of the time. His former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) visits him to request his assistance in extracting her from a plot involving her current lover, a real estate magnate (Mickey Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts, seen only too briefly) and his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover. What that plot actually was, we never learn, to my ability to discern, and eventually we discover that the plot dissolved without any intervention by Doc. Along the way, we encounter a murder, the murdered guy's widow (Belladonna), a maritime lawyer who helps Doc out (Benicio Del Toro), drug importation, a shady new-age anti-communist drug-rehab center, a mystery ship, an ex-con who seeks Doc's help in collecting some ill-gotten gains (Michael Kenneth Williams), a saxophone player who faked his death and is involved either in either communist or anti-communist activity or maybe first one and then the other (Owen Wilson), a gorgeous and buttoned-up district attorney who in real life would have nothing to do with a lowlife like Doc but who dates and drugs with him when she's not dismissing him in public (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful Asian woman who runs a cunnilingus operation (Hong Chau [no pun intended]), some nose-picking FBI agents, a crooked lawyer (Martin Donovan) and his wayward daughter (Sasha Pieterse) who Doc once tracked down for him, some other really bad guys (Keith Jardine and Jack Kelly), Maya Rudolph as a receptionist at the office suite where Doc has a cubicle (and which, indeed, seems to have some medical connection, which may or may not have something to do with his nickname and access to nitrous oxide), and, most prominently, an LA police detective known as Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) who either loathes Doc or loves him. All of it narrated, unreliably, by a young woman friend of Doc and Shasta named Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), who appears in a few scenes -- or does she?
Sound like a lot of fun? Maybe funny? Well, try to imagine all of those items connected to a single plot in very unclear ways -- in fact, as becomes clear (the only clear thing in the show), in intentionally unclear ways. That are not funny.
But I must say the movie did have some intrigue and enjoyable moments. Here's a guide to having a better time at this film:
First: Do not try to understand the plot. Do not feel bad about yourself if you are quickly lost in the film's cannabis haze. I got most of the connections for the first half hour, then started not getting them, and eventually realized they were irrelevant. Plot lines are not resolved; the information conveyed in certain scenes turns out to be completely unnecessary, or at least unnecessary to the plot. So don't even worry about what actually happens in the movie.
Second: Fight the urge to look at the characters' eyes, as you would if you were listening to a normal human being speak. There is a lot, I mean a lot, of mumbling in this show. I thought I was watching a Robert Altman movie for a minute there, with this movie having the advantage of people not talking over one another too much. (After I wrote this, I noticed that the reviewer for "The New Yorker" mensions Altman in the first paragraph of his review.) But a lot of mumbling, and a lot of drug-addled mumbling that you will never understand if you view faces as your instinct tells you to. Instead, look at the characters' mouths. That will help.
Third: Sit way back in the theater. Anderson likes close-ups of faces, and those famous pusses fill the screen. Makes the lip-reading easier, though.
Fourth: Ignore publicity describing this as a comedy, or a comedy-drama. It has almost no laughs and doesn't seem to be asking for them. The theater was almost completely silent in the showing I attended. More on this below.
It's long, too long, but I will concede that I was mostly engaged during its 2.5-hour running time. There were several scenes that added nothing to the plot, such as it was, and the camera lingered far too long on large faces that were not saying anything or otherwise conveying information pertinent to the proceedings. If Clint Eastwood had directed this, it would clock in at about 17 minutes. I will say that one of the longer unnecessary substories does give us the opportunity to enjoy Martin Short as a coke-fiend dentist who runs an organization that -- hell, I have no idea what it has to do with the plot.
The film is oddly lit, and kind of fuzzy in places. Claustrophobic -- even the scenes in open spaces gave off a kind of suffocating vibe.
Director Anderson ("The Master," "Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood") also wrote the screenplay. What is he getting at? I've seen it written that it is an effort to portray the paranoia of that period of time. Or its uncertainty. Maybe -- several of the characters seem to have dual personalities, dual loyalties, dual interests. Here's a quote from the Wikipedia page on the movie: "Anderson has said he tried to cram as many jokes onto the screen as Pynchon squeezed onto the page and that the visual gags and gimmicks were inspired by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker-style slapstick spoofs like Police Squad!, Top Secret!, and Airplane! Anderson also used the underground comic strip Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers as what he described as an invaluable 'research bible' for the writing process."
Boy, did he fail. As noted, there is scarcely a laugh in the show. There are some ridiculous moments that stick out, that have little to do with what surrounds them. But when you don't know if you're watching absurdist subversive dadaesque comedy or a movie made by someone who doesn't actually have a sense of humor who believes he is making a really funny movie, you're in for a struggle.
Here's what I imagine: A director popular with actors got a bunch of those actors together, they all smoked a lot of dope in front of and behind the cameras, and let those cameras roll. When he'd yell "cut," they'd all laugh uproariously at the hilarity they'd committed to film, and when it all got printed and edited and spliced together and they ran the whole thing, they smoked some more dope and watched it and almost passed out with laughter. Can you believe what he just did? Oh, man, I remember that little improv thing they did there, we just about died laughing. This thing is going to absolutely kill!
Then they released it to sober audiences.
But the movie does have its charms. It's full of people we recognize and like to look at. One of them is really cute and naked (next). But the show is really Doc's. I believe he is in every scene. Joachin Phoenix is surely one of our finest actors, and he is quite good in this. If you're going to have a quirky movie that goes on too long, I can hardly think of a gigantic face I would rather spend it with than the one belonging to Joachin Phoenix. And the other performances are mostly very good. I had my misgivings about Brolin's Bigfoot, but the part is overwritten and one-note and cartoonish (and not in a ha-ha cartoon way, but in a not-so-amusing cartoon way), so I don't hold him responsible.
As Shasta, Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) isn't asked to do much and while she's cute in a Renee-Zellweger's-former-face-lemon-sucking kind of way, I didn't think much of her performance. She is getting notice for a spectacular nude scene which devolves into a most peculiar and topologically unconvincing voluntary deviant sexual encounter. But we've all seen beautiful young naked women before. If you haven't -- you're reading this on the Internet and are mere seconds away from some. That scene, the first part watchable as it may be for the male half of the audience, does not justify the fare for entering the theater. Doubt Sam enjoyed it.
Quibbles: The movie does not get 1970 quite right. The cars are too old. The National Geographic someone is reading in an office is not in the format those mags were displaying in those years -- again, too old. The Neil Young songs played on the soundtrack, notably "Harvest," were released a couple of years later. Quibbles.
I can't tell you to go see it, because if you go and hate it, you'll blame me. But I do have a sneaking hunch that there are pieces of this movie that will stay with me, and I can't even say that about movies that I liked at the time. So it's a thumb's-up, but only in the privacy of this blog.