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MOVIES: Inherent Vice - A challenging experience from a brilliant filmmaker - Review

In a Paul Thomas Anderson film, anything is possible. A high school dropout can become a legendary adult film star. Frogs can rain from the heavens. And a pot-fueled private investigator can take on the FBI and local police in a labyrinthine search for a young woman who may or may not know the whereabouts of a philandering billionaire. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most daring filmmakers working today because he makes movies he wants to watch, audiences and critics be damned. With only seven films to his name, Anderson’s impact on cinema is unquestioned. His latest, Inherent Vice, while not his best, is a very strong film from a brilliant director.

Anderson loves to challenge himself as much as his audience. To that end, he has adapted Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice – one of many works to have been thought “unfilmable.” Like the novel, the film is dense and difficult to navigate with a large cast of characters who float in and out of the story like people in a dream. At the center is Larry “Doc” Sportello, a self-employed PI who calls the fictional town of Gordita Beach, California home. His ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), shows up out of the blue one night to ask for Doc’s help. Her billionaire, real estate mogul boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is in trouble and she needs Doc to spy on Mickey’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boyfriend who might be trying to commit Mickey to a looney bin to get his money.

As the case unfolds, Doc is working alongside/at odds with Lt. Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a hippie-hating patriot who moonlights as an actor. When Shasta and Wolfmann both disappear, Doc begins an almost Sisyphean odyssey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in order to find Shasta and to keep the multitude of promises he makes as he attempts to unravel the mystery.

While Anderson is regularly (and appropriately) praised for the beautiful composition of his films and his ability to extract from his actors some of the best performances of their careers, rarely do we stop to acknowledge and appreciate his skill at creating authentic environments for his characters, whether the period is the turn of the 20th century or a made up town in LA circa 1970. Anderson’s commitment to truthfulness is unparalleled. We sense the psychedelic vibe in the world of Inherent Vice. We feel the chasm that separates the squares (cops, lawyers, the Man) from the hip (everyone else). We hear the evolving language of the time flipping the bird in the face of the establishment. Paul Thomas Anderson was barely alive in the period when Inherent Vice takes place, but you would never guess it given the film’s representation of the time.

Like Anderson’s previous two films (The Master and There Will Be Blood), Inherent Vice is a dense journey. The film doesn’t build to a climax but instead just keeps happening until the story is over. There Will Be Blood and Magnolia are both masterpieces of cinema and required viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of film. Neither have a clear plot, per se, because the experience of watching each is its own reward. The same cannot be said of Inherent Vice. There is too little to keep viewers’ attention – even true PTA fans – despite an incredible cast, all of whom turn in excellent performances. Anderson rarely makes a misstep, but Inherent Vice is just too clunky and unfocused.

Inherent Vice is worth watching for the cast, especially Josh Brolin, and Anderson’s ability to transport his audience. There is no need to rush to see it in the theaters, though. Wait for Netflix or OnDemand so you can pause the film when the heady nature is too burdensome.

Grade: B-