Monday 12 September 2016

Movie Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

A loose stoner crime drama, Inherent Vice is an incomprehensible mess, an assortment of ideas, characters and events thrown into a jumble and left to die on the vine of fake profundity.

It's Los Angeles in 1970, and perpetually stoned private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a surprise visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She wants Doc to investigate a plot against her current illicit lover, development tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc is also contacted by ex-con Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams), who wants Doc to recover money from Glen Charlock, one of Wolfmann's guards. Before long both Shasta and Wolfmann have disappeared, Charlock is dead, and Doc is the main murder suspect, being harassed by legendary Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

With help from his lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro) Doc stays free, and is soon investigating the curious case of Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a police informant seemingly embroiled over his head with white supremacists. Doc also uncovers a shadowy organization called Golden Fang, which may be a front for an international drug trafficking cartel involving creepy dentists. As Doc continues to poke his nose into the various cases, his own life comes under threat.

An ill conceived marriage of Chinatown and The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice is director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson finding a putrid nadir as he tries to adapt a novel by Thomas Pynchon. With a production environment variously described as chaotic, crazy and devoid of a goal, the on-screen product appears to confirm that no one really knew what they were doing, least of all the director and actors. At an overlong 149 minutes, the film is excruciatingly tedious, before finally tripping into the unintentionally funny territory occupied by ridiculous narcissists.

Every scene introduces new characters in name or in person, and most of them then appear for one or two scenes and then disappear for good. Plot points come and go at random, and the synopsis presented above is just a starting point from which multiple threads end up dangling, none of them remotely coherent. By the end of the film Doc is held hostage and is then killing random bad guys for reasons that are never entirely clear. Flatfoot is either an ally or an opponent, Shasta and Wolfmann have undisappeared but no one seems to really care, drug deals are going down, and somehow Doc decides that it's important to trade for the freedom of informant Coy.

Anderson fails miserably to build empathy for any of the characters, a fundamental requirement to save an excessively dense plot. Instead all of the events are opaque and unresolved, and the movie is littered with guest appearances representing superficial and phony characters of no ultimate consequence. Anderson confuses long stretches of stoned dialogue involving Doc, Shasta and Coy for a deep delving into backgrounds and motivations, but the conversations are esoteric to the point of self-obsessed gibberish.

A case of an emperor caught decisively with no clothes on, Inherent Vice is inherently a disaster.

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