Inherent Vice written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Ghoulardi Film Company, IAC Films, Warner Bros., R, 148 min)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

Searching for God Knows What

What makes a good detective story? For some, the answer is a desire for mystery. The whodunit aspect becomes the key. Each chapter or scene adds weight to the impending sense of cracking the case.

The mystery genre, however, provides many offshoots. In particular, the noir genre of detective story creates a brooding sense of drama surrounding the standard case solving formula. The detectives in charge of the case become the main point, transforming the story into an exploration of human depravity—both the killer and the detectives solving the case.

Todd VanDerWerff, in fact, just published a piece exploring a further subset of noir based on the California locale.

California noir as a genre informs Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Inherent Vice.

The Haze of Story

The story, what can be ascertained at least—I submit a warning that this film is not an easy-to-digest story—surrounds private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he attempts to solve a convoluted plot around a shady businessman and his mistress, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who happens to be Doc’s ex.

Strung out on what’s left of the 1960s hippie revolution, Doc meanders around the film searching for clues in a drug haze.

Random occurrences blend into a somewhat coherent plot as case after case continues to point to the mysterious Golden Fang organization.

While investigating, Doc pops up in the periphery of a murder of a key business associate. The corresponding probe sees Doc connect with the yin to his yang, detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

Randomly and yet hilariously, Doc falls further and further into a plot he doesn’t really understand, let alone the viewer’s ability to comprehend what’s up with Doc.

Just Wanna Make You Laugh

What makes Inherent Vice shine, though, is its humor. While I haven’t seen the entire Paul Thomas Anderson canon, I can say this is his funniest film to date. The script and the performances are as oddball as can be, and the cadence of line delivery in addition to excellent sight gags create much laughter (though I wouldn’t call this a quotable, laugh-out-loud kind of movie).

And yet, underneath this quirky story, we see a film that deconstructs the California noir trope, exploring the death of the 1960s, the necessity of an air-tight mystery in a detective story, and the need for gritty, broken men to engage in detective work.

Inherent Vice is worth your time, provided you are willing to invest in it.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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