Inherent Vice is a film where everyone sits and stands in rooms, talking. Lots of talking, about nothing, about something, next to popsicles, feet, smoke, on sexy telephones, with long hair, ouija boards, picking teeth, talking heroin. It’s 2015 and Paul Thomas Anderson made another film. He used a book this time: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. “Why should things be easy to understand?” Thomas Pynchon writes. “Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit in a lifetime and stay sane.”
It’s California in the 70s. The main character, Doc, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as a dirty, endearing, slightly idiotic, but somehow always savvy private investigator, may or may not be having a conversation with himself for the entirety of the movie. As viewers, we may or may not be witnessing this visual, aural, potentially pointless discussion for two-and-a-half hours. Similarly, Lege, played by Joanna Newsom as Doc’s best friend, could either be actually speaking to Doc in her scenes or she could be an encouraging voice of his head. Bigfoot, the hilariously offensive, grieving police officer who is always eating disgusting things, played by Josh Brolin, continually speaks throughout the film, but it doesn’t really matter what he says. It’s part of the score, it’s great music, all his strange, mean, talking noise. I feel like I’m underwater, paranoid at a tea party. Doc’s smoking joints and Bigfoot’s eating popsicles and people are dying or going into treatment and the sticky notes follow. Coy, played by Owen Wilson as another subtly and comically hurting con-character, provides some existential clarifications – for himself and Doc and maybe us. He has many different identities (for many different reasons, he’s sort of in a cult) and talks as if he is a character in Linklater’s Waking Life, wondering when he will wake up. It’s the perfect role for Owen Wilson because his voice can drift off into a casually profound space and then back into pizza. Doc identifies with Coy, probably because of this voice and the fact that he’s lost and missing someone. As for the person Doc misses, a mildly pornographic ex-girlfriend played by Katherine Waterston – she orients this dream.
As a person who likes words as words, images as images, and sounds as sounds, and, therefore, doesn’t think cinematic arrangements need to build up to a grand, contextual morale or goal, I really, really liked this film. It has great moods and colours, textured portraits.
All in all, the story is a fun investigation and some images may be ‘big clues’ that ‘solve’ the mystery, while others are just there because the character lives them. It’s human to watch in this way. Some people are saying watching this film is like taking a big bong hit, like sleepwalking through the beaches of California, getting paranoid about NASA in your living room, like the love child of The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep. Many critics think the film is too heady or wordy, hard to follow, not one of PTA’s best, etc. These are all valid criticisms. Of life. It’s hard to follow ourselves sometimes. Sometimes a person spends an entire year missing someone and relating all the events of his life to her. He tries to find a definitive meaning, clues to solve the mystery of her absence. He gets so lost that it’s funny. In Inherent Vice, we get to follow this man, and watch this strange, human tendency of missing.