Inherent Vice (2014)
★ / ★★★★
If I were to jot down the positive qualities that “Inherent Vice” had, the page would be close to blank. With a running time of two and a half hours, it feels significantly, tortuously longer because the screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson fail to engage the viewers in such a way that it makes a drug-fueled underworld look like a bloody automobile accident one could not help but watch.
Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a licensed private investigator who decides to ask questions after his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance. The last time they spoke to one another, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) confessed that she has been made aware of a scheme that involves two people wanting to send the man she is currently seeing—a major league real estate figure—to a mental hospital. Sportello becomes a suspect when he is found by the cops, led by Lieutenant Detective Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), regaining consciousness next to a corpse in the middle of the desert.
Not for one second is the protagonist a convincing investigator. Superficially, we observe him floating from one connection after another, often addicted to drugs themselves, but he does not ask enough probing questions—questions that incite reaction or any surprising insight about the mystery at hand. Oftentimes the characters engage in whispers and mumblings—the camera real close to their faces—so low-key that the scenes become bland, boring, soporific, so dragged on that the running time becomes unjustified.
The material neglects to give us a good reason why we should care about the detective or the missing girl. Their relationship is not anything special. One can argue that they do not even have a relationship to begin with—at least one that is deep or lasting. Sportello comes across as lazy, dirty, deadly dull when interacting with others. Other than the one scene that sets up the story, we learn not one interesting thing about Shasta. I would like to personally ask the director why he thinks this story is worth telling.
This is a film teeming with caricatures, not real people. This would not have been a problem if the material consistently made an active attempt to criticize a particular time, place, group people, or way of thinking. But the picture is not a criticism of anything—not through comedy, satire, or condemnation. It is a straight-faced drama with no marrow to it. Thus, what results is a one-dimensional dross with actors in it who utter lines but they themselves look like they have no idea what the movie is attempting to accomplish.
People will defend this movie for its brazen insularity. They are entitled to do that. Not me. I could not go up to someone, genuinely tell them that it is worth seeing, and feel good about it. A movie can be inaccessible emotionally or intellectually, maybe both, yet still offer a great experience through, for example, visual artistry or how the work tends to stick to the viewer’s brain long afterwards.
I understood “Inherent Vice,” based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, on the basis of what it tries to accomplish, but I wished that the writer-director understood the importance of translating a book to the screen. Some might say one has to read the book first and then watch the movie so the work can be understood. Wrong. It is most critical that the material be digestible through a cinematic experience. Otherwise, why spend millions of dollars to make something that gives nothing yet steal everybody’s time?