With each new movie he makes, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors working today. As good as Daniel Day-Lewis was is Lincoln, Phoenix deserved the Academy Award for his astoundingly brilliant performance in The Master, a role so unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie that I said at the time his work in The Master furthered the art of cinematic acting. While Phoenix pushed his character as far as he could possibly go in that film, he plays it looser and funnier in his new film, Inherent Vice.
Inherent Vice, which was directed by the one and only Paul Thomas Anderson, is a sun-soaked, drug-infused neo-noir. Based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is twisty, bizarre and wholly unpredictable. It’s also probably some kind of great movie. Like other neo-noirs such as The Big Lebowski or The Long Goodbye, good luck following all the pieces of the plot, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The labyrinthine story is simply an excuse for Pynchon, Anderson and Phoenix to lead us further down the rabbit hole of insanity that is this movie.
Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a former police officer turned private investigator in sunny Gordito Beach, California, circa 1970. Thanks to the appearance of Shasta, his ex-girlfriend (beautifully played by Katherine Waterson), Doc gets thrown into a case involving a missing real-estate tycoon, drug rings, dentists, cults, neo-nazi scum bags, hippies, hit men and various other wacky types. With a never-ending litany of bizarre supporting turns, a terrific soundtrack, brilliant sun-bleached cinematography by Robert Elswit and an appropriately full-baked performance by Phoenix; Anderson has created a film that feels like it’s on drugs.
Phoenix is in full command as Doc; it’s a brilliant comic performance by an actor not widely known for comedy (although he is very funny in both Her and I’m Still Here). Also turning in a terrific performance is Josh Brolin as “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. He’s a towering, bullying presence in Doc’s life; a detective who’s also an aspiring actor. Brolin turns “Bigfoot” into a hulking, brooding maniac; it’s great fun.
Few directors use ensemble casts as well as Paul Thomas Anderson, and this film is no exception. Even actors with relatively small roles make an impression; including Martin Short as a drugged-out dentist, the great Jeannie Berlin as Aunt Reet and Jena Malone as a recently clean and sober housewife. The film also features juicy roles for Benicio del Toro and Owen Wilson. Singer Joanna Newsom both narrates the film, and plays the role of Sortilège. I also liked Jordan Christian Hearn as Denis, Doc’s hippie sidekick.
Inherent Vice is not for everyone, of course, but it should have a long shelf-life as a cult classic. I loved it.
Inherent Vice. 2014. Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. With Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, Benicio Del Toro, Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterston, Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Martin Short, Martin Donovan. Written by Paul Thomas Anderson, based upon the book by Thomas Pynchon. Cinematography by Robert Elswit. United States.