The bad news is, Inherent Vice is easily Paul Thomas Anderson’s worst movie. The good news is, it’s still a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, so there’s plenty of great stuff to be found.
But you do have to search for it. The setting is 1970’s Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a private detective who operates out of a doctor’s office, for some reason. “For some reason” might be the battle cry of this entire movie. The setup mimics the vintage Bogey/private dick movie from the 40’s. There’s a femme fatale, an antagonistic law enforcement officer, double dealings, double crosses, etc. But the presentation is muddled and confusing, leaving the viewer three or four steps behind with every new scene that introduces a new character and a new plot twist. Doc is a drug addict, and it’s clear we’re meant to experience the world through the eyes of a user, constantly questioning what we’re seeing and hearing and struggling to keep up. For me, that is not a way to maintain my interest. If a movie is that determined to leave you behind, at a certain point you have to simply let it go.
So with the story in shambles, we’re left with individual scenes and what the actors can bring to those scenes. Fortunately, we’ve got a murderers row of fantastic actors on display here, each one of them at the top of their game. Josh Brolin is utterly hysterical here, playing the “square” cop who’s also probably insane. There are scores of fun little cameos, including Martin Short, ironically playing one of the least cartoony roles he’s ever done. The character is nonetheless a raging coke addict and lover of barely legal teen girls. And in the center of this, is Phoenix. I think the time has come to have a serious talk about Phoenix being our greatest living actor. He does everything right here. He can’t be that crazy, because he must react to the insanity around him. And yet, he never for a moment is upstaged by anyone. His facial expressions and verbal tics throughout the movie are impossible to tear your eyes from. I truly loved this performance, the best of the year by far. I hope that he and Anderson continue making movies together in perpetuity.
It’s ultimately way too long and way too indulgent in scenes that are nowhere near as riveting as Anderson thinks they are. And make no mistake, Anderson’s middle name is “Indulgence”. You will find no stronger Anderson apologist than I, but I guess there’s a limit, even for me.