'Inherent Vice' Is Paul Thomas Anderson's Hilarious Choose Your Own Adventure Tale [Movie Review]

Paul Thomas Anderson never ceases to amaze. He makes a rain of frogs look plausible, turns Adam Sandler into an actor, and makes an iconic image out of drinking milkshakes. He's always doing something surprising and wonderful. Anderson's latest film, Inherent Vice, is two hours of those moments loosely strung together with a detective narrative.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice stars Joaquin Phoenix as Doc, a ratty detective whose mysterious ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) asks for help with a supposed plot against her new squeeze. Doc obliges, as Doc does with many people in the film, but the movie never really cares about solving this mystery. It's more interested in Doc's pot-infused, Choose Your Own Adventure lifestyle where he says "yes" to everything and takes the ride that follows.

That ride introduces some absolutely insane, memorable characters played by the likes of Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Reese Withersooon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph and Jena Malone, all of whom pop in and out of Doc's life on a whim. Some play significant roles, others do not, but Inherent Vice isn't a movie about connecting these points. It's pretty much just about the trip.

Inherent Vice had its Los Angeles Premiere at the AFI Fest presented by Audi and you can continue reading our Inherent Vice movie review below.

Inherent Vice review

The Secret to Inherent Vice

The key to enjoying Inherent Vice is simple: don't worry about the story. That sounds like an odd note when you go to a movie; aren't movies supposed to tell stories? They are, yes, but they also offer experiences and concepts. The story of Inherent Vice is probably the fourth or fifth most important thing on Anderson's mind, and some may call that a flaw. In my opinion, by prioritizing character, dialogue, setting and performance,  Anderson creates not only an ode to the book's author, but to '60s California.

PTA's California is Highly Unpredictable

California is something Anderson obviously loves. The California of Inherent Vice is even more specific and weird than that of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood all rolled into one. We literally have no idea what could be coming next on Doc's journey. Maybe he goes to a sex shop. Maybe he inquires about a pirate ship. Maybe he ends up snorting coke at a dentists office. All the while, Anderson's script makes it feel like all these things are going to connect. We hear familiar names consistently. This guy knows that guy and there's a look of recognition on Doc's face. But then it goes away as he just continues to dive into every situation head first like it was his sole purpose in life. That determination to live in the moment creates a very unique feeling. Inherent Vice is a comedy noir with layers of comedy all wrapped in a weird, laid back package. Comparisons to The Big Lebowski, at least in terms of humor and tone, are not off base.

From Top to Bottom, A Stellar Cast

The cast of Inherent Vice is stellar, from the leads all the way down to the background extras. Everyone is dedicated to Anderson's vision. As usual, Phoenix is a revelation as Doc. He's in every scene and you can't take your eyes off his his facial expressions, facial hair and hat collection. (So: applaud the costume and hair and makeup teams, too.) Josh Brolin, as a wild police detective nicknamed Bigfoot, borders on madness in the best possible way. And as Shasta, an essential role but the smallest one of the bunch, Waterston radiates an undeniable charm and mystery perfect for the role. Other standouts are Martin Short, and newcomer Hong Chau in the film's most bat-shit but memorable role.

More Pynchon, Less Anderson

One knock, if you can call it that, against Inherent Vice is that Anderson's typically bold directorial style is slightly muted in the film. His epic, sweeping long shots are reined in, and most of the storytelling is done with medium shots, giving Inherent Vice a more personal feel than some of his other films. I'm sure on a second viewing there will be lots more to see, but here Anderson seems less interested in being the auteur than in making a movie that captures the style and feel of Thomas Pynchon. As noble as that is, I wanted a tad more Anderson in the director's latest.

The Verdict

Inherent Vice is not for everyone. It's difficult, it's weird, and it may be divisive. Yet it is also hilarious, quirky and incredibly entertaining. It's a film begging either to be studied, or left on in the background during a party. However you want to look at it, Inherent Vice fits Anderson's vision.

/Film rating: 9 of 10

Inherent Vice opens limited on December 12. It expands January 9.