Inherent Vice Review
In 1970, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) visits the beach house of Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) near Los Angeles. Doc is a hippie/dope head private investigator and, occasionally, Shasta’s ex-boyfriend. Shasta tells him about her new lover, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) a wealthy real estate developer, and requests his help to prevent a plot by Mickey’s wife and her lover to have Mickey abducted and committed to an insane asylum. That’s the basic plot of the movie but what about its own inherent vices?
In Marine cargo policies, the term inherent vice refers to a loss arising from "qualities inherent" in the goods insured, i.e. hidden defect (or the very nature) of a good or property which of itself is the cause of (or contributes to) its deterioration, damage, or wastage (e.g. melted chocolate or broken glass). Maybe I am stretching the comparison a little bit here but this is kind of what I felt with the movie itself. Let me explain.
The first thing that I need to mention is that while watching the movie, I had a strong impression that the director wanted us more to feel his movie - the kind of trip you could experience after smoking the same substances that Doc’s character abuses throughout the movie - than to follow it in a more straightforward manner. There is a definitely a story being told (I am not trying to undermine Thomas Pynchon’s work here) but the movie’s slow pace, burst of weird humour, characters talking endlessly about feelings and impressions, and so on are the things you retain after the screening rather than the often convoluted plot and numerous characters. These aspects of the movie are, for me, echoing the definition above, its inherent vices.
Another inherent vice for me was the length. Don’t misunderstand me, I love a long, and very often slow, movie (one of my favourites, The Godfather Part 2 is at least 3 hours and 20 minutes and it is a masterpiece) but in this case, I thought it was too long. Whatever the cause - the will to immerse the spectator in the experience, the story itself, or Anderson’s tendency to stretch his movies - it had a detrimental effect for me and when a trip becomes too long it can easily turn into a bad trip!
The final vice is the casting. Anderson is known to assemble great ensemble casts in his movies, and this is no exception, but although all the actors are pretty good, their performances are pretty much all on the safe side; particular mention should go to Owen Wilson who plays his his usual soft voiced likable character whole Josh Brolin, as a straight face tough policeman, and Benicio Del Toro, as the weird main character’s friend, have been seen like this before. The fact that they do it in a movie that does not seem to take itself too seriously could have been an ironic plus point but it did not do it for me. The exception is really Joaquin Phoenix whose performance is quite different from his other roles, and he is definitely a more interesting casting decision than Anderson's first choice, Robert Downey Jr., who would surely have done his usual...well, Robert Downey Jr. performance.
However, despite from these vices, there are many inherent qualities that make the movie a good trip. I particularly liked the movie’s atmosphere. This is actually quite funny. Anderson has been quoted to say that his movie is clearly a Sixties movie, and I think he is right to say this in the sense that it is purposely set in 1970 (contrary to a general opinion, a new decade only really starts one year after its year ”zero”) which is key because it completely reflects the disillusion of the US after the glorious Sixties. However, during, and after, the screening, I had a very strong reminiscence of these 70s neo-detective movies, like Chinatown (1974) and, particularly, The Long Goodbye (1973), which represented a new take on the genre . I would actually go further in saying that apart from obvious references to Alice in Wonderland (Shasta as the white rabbit), which could be more attributed to the book itself, it actually felt like Anderson used Robert Altman’s version of Raymond Chandler’s novel as a key reference for his movie.
There is a lot to say about this movie and its inherent vices and qualities but, in short, it did not fully work for me. But it is definitely worth seeing and feeling just to see what stays with you afterwards.