Rated R for everything. I'm going to start with the most flagrant, but probably least offensive thing in the movie: drug use. There's a lot of it. There are plenty of different kinds of drugs and they are consumed in many different ways. You can't say that about all movies. Some movies only have some drugs. Other movies, I hear, have no drugs. But the big bad of the movie is the amount of sex and violence throughout. Okay, the violence is fairly tame, but the sex is pretty explicit and it runs throughout. Because of all of these things, the language gets pretty intense at times. But if you are watching this movie and thinking, "Whoa whoa! Language," you've probably missed the point.
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson
A buddy of mine from the video store days loudly proclaimed on Facebook that PTA lost it when he made Inherent Vice. This buddy and I disagree on everything except The Fountain and only one of the Marvel movies. When I read that, I disregarded it. I love the guy, but his taste in movies is the polar opposite from mine. I just never really got around to actually watching it. I don't know how it happened. I used to lose my mind over PTA, but then I just didn't watch The Master or Inherent Vice. I don't think that the trailer really grabbed me. Also, I know that sometimes movies are hard-sells with my wife. After all, if we're going to get a babysitter, I want to make sure it is worth it. I actually agree with my friend. Inherent Vice is so far from a masterpiece that I almost have a hard time figuring out that it is from the same director as There Will Be Blood.
Paul Thomas Anderson is the film snob's security blanket. I say that as the greatest compliment that I can give him. If a Paul Thomas Anderson movie is going to come out, I often lose my mind pretty quickly. I know that his films are quality. He puts so much attention into everything he does. Every one of his scenes carries an emotional resonance coupled with absolutely stellar cinematography. Appropriately talking about Inherent Vice, many of his movies are the most effective when it comes to manipulating emotion. It's like watching a depressant. I enter a completely new headspace when watching his movies. But Inherent Vice isn't really that. Inherent Vice is something new. I don't blame PTA for doing something new. Heck, I almost expect it from him. But Inherent Vice feels like a massive failure of trying too hard. I have a confession to make about my English teacher credentials: I haven't read Thomas Pynchon. I've always been way too intimidated and overwhelmed with dozens of other books that I feel guilty about to even attempt to read Pynchon. I don't know what it is. I have never really felt called to do it. It doesn't really seem up my alley. Since I'm about to start talking trash about Inherent Vice as a movie, I have to put the caveat to it that the very concept of Inherent Vice might not be my cup of tea. I'm the most straight-edge guy people meet. I love the rules and structure. While I like avant garde and experimental film, I'm also somewhat attached to narrative structures and rules. Inherent Vice is none of those things. But I'm probably going to be linking Inherent Vice closely to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fear and Loathing is not one of my favorite films, but I really like it. Even from an outside perspective, we can attach ourselves to Hunter S. Thompson, regardless of how bizarre and non-linear the film gets at times. Inherent Vice is a film that is trying to capture the unfilmable. Doc, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a character that is almost without background. I don't want to stick by that description altogether because the movie tells us lots of stuff about him. He loves drugs, which is his primary descriptor. He was in love with Shasta who has left him for someone else. I suppose that he's a doctor, a gynecologist, but he's also a private investigator. The movie is really rooted on the idea that we should know who Doc is before the film even started. We visit Doc's office a few times throughout the film, but we never really see him working. Rather, the movie uses drugs as the primary category throughout the story. If he's in a scene, he's doing drugs. It seems like a lot of drug-related films use drugs as character. I don't love it because someone on drugs is almost an archetype in itself. I never really understand Doc because he is just Hunter S. Thompson or Jason Mewes. Cheech and Chong work as characters in comedies because we're never supposed to identify with them. They are vehicles for comedy. Doc is teased with emotional traits. His obsession with Shasta and their past seems important in the story, but we never really get what happened with their relationship. He is consistent throughout the story. There are few highs and lows with one or two exceptions. Instead, we get that flat affect that we would get in a film noir, but replacing cool detachment with drug addled middleness.
I read some other reviews of this movie before writing. I had to see what people got out of this movie. This entire paragraph might be chalked up to what people find funny is often wildly subjective. Inherent Vice wants to be funny. I can't help but think back to the Paul F. Thompkins bit about PTA. Thompkins was supposed to be in There Will Be Blood because PTA saw his set. PTA is a fan of comedy, as can be seen by his casting choices. He's married to Maya Rudolph. He tends to cast comedians in odd roles. But I get from that movie that he is on the outside, looking in. He wants so desperately to be funny, but it isn't his wheelhouse. I had this theory that dramatists can do comedy once and it works while comedians can do drama for the rest of their lives and be fine. I think mostly of Robert DeNiro after Meet the Parents and Jim Carrey after The Truman Show. There's one thing that I have to get across: Inherent Vice is not funny. This makes me question one principle of comedy. I have always held the advice that people trying to be funny aren't funny. I suppose that is still true here. But the related idea is that the people involved in the story don't find things funny. Something is or isn't funny by nature. It shouldn't be imbued with jokes. The film is filled with jokes, often jokes that don't work. But many of these scenes aren't played for laughs, which I respect. But none of these jokes even land. Some of them are just bad jokes. I think of the naming situation going on throughout. But there's one moment that is so attempting to be funny that never really works. I think it is in the trailer, but it is Doc's reaction to the photo. All the beats of a joke are in there. I even think that, on paper, the joke should crush. But watching that scene play out is just uncomfortable. It never made me laugh. I know the movie as a whole isn't a comedy. But it definitely is more than a dramedy. I keep thinking of working to service the movie, but the jokes don't do any of that. All of this ties into my philosophy that PTA is trying to get to. Thomas Pynchon is apparently kind of unfilmable. His works are very cerebral and apparently break rules of storytelling. There is an experience of not understanding that prevails throughout the books. That odd narrative creates a hilarious effect of constantly being put off guard. A book can work on that idea slowly. PTA, in an interview with Vice.com, mentions that he secluded himself in a room for days reading the book. The experience is slow and deliberate. Yeah, the movie is two-and-a-half hours long, but that's not a book. That's not the same process that we get for one thing communicated in the second thing. The movie seems to stare at me and scream at me to get the absurdism and it never really is conveyed effectively. Rather, the movie rides the rails of a traditional mystery narrative, but with the same confusion that would accompany a movie with structural issues. I often get lost in mysteries. Sometimes that's kind of fun because it all comes together at the end. Inherent Vice wants you to play that game a little bit. It wouldn't hold the tropes it did if it didn't want some investment in the story. But it also wants you to watch the movie and have structural tropes collapse at the same time. I really can't invest in paradoxical ideas like that. It's either that I'm all in your story and I'm riding along with Doc to solve this mystery or I'm commenting on the absurdism of even trying to make a mystery narrative anymore when there's drugs involved, but I can't do both.
It's weird that I'm talking so harshly about a PTA movie. I know that I didn't lose my mind about Phantom Thread, but Inherent Vice was rough. The thing is, it isn't rough all of the time. PTA is still a functional and gorgeous director who can establish tone well and that's what initially got me on board, despite my boredom with the story. Throughout, there's a cool vibe to everything. I felt cool watching it. I have it under my belt and I can now throw it around snobby conversations about both the works of Paul Thomas Anderson and the drug culture of the late sixties during the Manson Trials. Yay, for me. But there's this odd tipping point where the movie quickly becomes "Okay, I get it." A tone can become somewhat oppressive at times. The movie tosses all of these elements into a stew. Honestly, the elements thrown into this movie are actually kind of juvenile, making the film as a whole somewhat disheartening. If I wanted to talk to you about making a hilariously insane murder mystery, there are some things that would just be so clever that they become stupid. Nazis would be one of them. Dentists and drug dealing would be another. The thing is that these moments don't actually line up in any meaningful way. The movie offers these disparate absurdities and then doesn't really effectively tie the two together. The a-ha moment that really makes us all laugh is a convincing reason why these two bananas moments are in the film. That moment is actually kind of lame. It's a magic trick that has an answer that isn't that impressive. It is the way you would do that magic trick if you put absolutely no thought behind it. The mystery is almost meant to release an endorphin rush. That moment of epiphany is almost necessary to a film because the audience is being inundated with seemingly useless information. These infodumps are actually quite oppressive. They're necessary to the story. But we stick through horribly dull expositional moments because we know that there's going to be a payoff. I think we all knew that there wasn't going to be a satisfying payoff in this movie. PTA telegraphs that. Instead, what we get is Josh Brolin saying all kinds of plot related gobbelty-gook and Joaquin Phoenix looking at him as confused as I am. But Doc understands. We don't necessarily have to. So if the movie isn't funny, except for kinda-sorta Martin Short, and the movie doesn't really have a narrative to glean onto, and the mystery kind of has a forced solution, and the tone is easily identifyable in the first few minutes, what is there to look forward to? The entire movie is based around Doc, who as I mentioned is barely a character. You can like that character, like you would bond with Jay and Silent Bob. I like lots of stoner characters. But Jay and Silent Bob tell decent jokes sometimes. Hunter S. Thompson is a well rounded character. I don't get much of that from Doc or his peers. I still don't get what Bigfoot's deal is in this movie.
I get why people didn't like this movie. It tries way too hard to be something more than it is. Some insurmountable mountains are actually kind of insurmountable. They should be. Not everything has to be filmed. Sometimes something can just be a book. Maybe Inherent Vice is a success and I just don't get it. But I tried to find something I could really latch onto and I had nothing.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.