Anderson is a great director who knows how to craft scenes that draw viewers in, holding their attention even when there isn’t always a clear-cut point being made. The Master was more than a bit obtuse, but here he’s walking a tightrope without a net. Everything is dependent upon the strength of the acting, the staging, the soundtrack, and the overall ambiance to hold the film together. Though nowhere near as intense as he was in The Master, star Joaquin Phoenix is the glue that holds Vice together. He’s funny and natural as the perpetually stoned private eye Doc Sportello. He’s working a couple cases, the central one being the disappearance of real estate big shot Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).
What comes to mind is Terry Gilliam’s wacked-out Hunter S. Thompson adaptation Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Benicio del Toro is here too). Though never as openly hallucinatory as that visual masterpiece, Anderson adopts a similarly outrageous (if more laidback) ‘anything goes’ vibe. Josh Brolin appears to still be in-character from Men in Black III, continuing to channel Tommy Lee Jones in his portrayal of Bigfoot Bjornsen (a detective with a yen for phallic-looking snacks). Characters drift in and out. Some big names turn up for cameos, including Owen Wilson as saxophonist Coy Harlingen and Martin Short as coked-up dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. The one-time Johnny Cash is reunited with the one-time June Carter Cash as Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (as lawyer Penny Kimball) share a few funny scenes. It’s hard to care a lick about Doc’s quest to find Wolfmann, but for those who love watching actors sink their teeth into delicious dialogue, it’s all a trip worth taking.
More central to the film’s allure is Katherine Waterston as Doc’s ex-girlfriend, and eternal object of desire, Shasta Fay Hepworth. Waterston (daughter of actor Sam) has a fairly extensive list of credits stretching back a few years, but this is quite obviously her breakthrough role. As Doc’s on-again/off-again lover (“This doesn’t mean we’re getting back together,” we hear from Doc more than once), Waterston is so sexy she actually manages to carry the film more sturdily than the meandering plot. We watch in anticipation of her reappearance. It’s easy to recommend Inherent Vice on the strength of hers and Phoenix’s performance, not to mention the colorful side characters, but by the end of the 149-minute movie it’s also easy to wish Anderson had managed to carve out a more impactful story.
Shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Robert Elswit, Inherent Vice is a visual love letter to old school filmmaking. Paul Thomas Anderson is a champion of using real film for his movies. Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray presentation is a triumph of grainy, color-saturated imagery. The look of the film is a huge part of the Inherent Vice experience and it’s a treat to look at on Blu-ray. There’s plenty of visual invention in Anderson’s sun-baked Southern California it’s breathtakingly presented in this 1080p presentation. As for audio, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 is excellent too, with a moody score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood highlighting the sonic pleasures.
The big downside to the Blu-ray is the absence of any worthwhile special features. Under the “special features” menu, there are four titles listed: “Los Paranoias,” “Shasta Fay,” “The Golden Fang,” and “Everything in this Dream.” The first three are basically trailers. The last one is marginally more interesting, offering some footage not seen in the film. But without any context it’s hard to wonder why they bothered to include anything. The Blu-ray package also includes a standard DVD and Digital Copy. I guess Paul Thomas Anderson preferred to let the film speak for itself, in all its enigmatic glory. While not for all tastes, by any means, Inherent Vice is easy to recommend for anyone with somewhat outré taste.