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Inherent Vice

I’m not sure I get it.  I’m not sure it matters.  I like it anyway.

“Inherent Vice” is a riff on hard-boiled detective stories like “The Big Sleep,” but in the same vein as “The Big Lebowski.”  By that I mean our detective is pretty soft-boiled.  Sam Spade he ain’t.  Unlike the little Lebowski, Joaquin Phoenix plays an actual detective, and while he may smoke just as much pot as The Dude, underneath his hazy exterior, he’s a pretty astute detective.  Not unlike Jake Gittes in “Chinatown,” he shrewdly plays dumb while putting the pieces together for himself.

“Inherent Vice” is more like “The Big Sleep” than those other two movies, however, because I’m not at all sure the pieces ever actually fit together.  Certainly many of the questions asked are never answered.  But also like that Humphrey Bogart classic, it doesn’t really matter. We get caught up in the characters, the atmosphere, and the intrigue to the point that the questions don’t really matter.

This is L.A. in 1970: the flower children movement has begun to wilt a bit, and square-jawed businessman are figuring out how to sell modular homes to hippies.  “Doc” Wolfmann (Phoenix) is visited by his former girlfriend, who seems to be mixed up in some kind of intrigue involving a real estate mogul, a mental hospital, and a heroin cartel.  Eventually a syndicate of dentists gets involved, as well, and there’s an former surf-guitar-playing undercover government agent who doesn’t want to be undercover anymore, or an agent. And a kidnapped heiress.  You can see how quickly this gets out of hand.

Doc has a love/hate relationship with “Bigfoot” Christiansen (Brolin) of the LAPD, who affectionately beats the crap out of him on a  regular basis, then shares tidbits of police business that help with the cases Doc is working on.  Brolin and Phoenix are so much fun to watch. The chemistry between them is fantastic, easily outpacing any duo making romantic comedies this year.

But the film really belongs to director P.T. Anderson, of course.  He has yet to make a movie that looks or feels like anyone else could have made it.  He is a master of atmosphere, texture and tone, and while he usually uses those tools to take on complicated stories and characters (as in “The Master,” or “There Will Be Blood,”) here he seems to be goofing around, while still supremely in control. Because film noir isn’t about story, it’s about atmosphere, and stoner noir (is that a thing?) even more so. This is a movie that invites you to fall down its rabbit hole, to get lost in the world it creates, and to stop worrying about whether it all makes sense.  I am such a fan of story — plot, pacing, twist, etc. —  I usually don’t go for this kind of thing.  A lot of directors try to make movies that are more about atmosphere than plot.  Most of them fail. It might be the hardest kind of movie to make.  “Inherent Vice” might be a masterpiece.

 

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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