‘Inherent Vice’ Review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Stoner ‘Top Secret!’
About midway through Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice,’ there’s a scene in which private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) are having a phone conversation. In the middle of the conversation, Bjornsen says to his young son, “go to bed.” Doc, thinking Bjornsen is talking to him, asks, “why would I go to bed?” Doc’s question is never answered and the conversation continues as if that exchange had never happened. There are a lot of moments like this during ‘Inherent Vice.’ I suspect that this is what Anderson meant when he told the New York Times, “‘Police Squad!’ and ‘Top Secret!’ are what I clued into … We tried hard to imitate or rip off the Zucker brothers’ style of gags so the film can feel like the book feels: just packed with stuff. And fun.”
The beats of a Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker movie are certainly there: ‘Top Secret!’ has its stamp all throughout ‘Inherent Vice. (Quite literally -- at one point, Doc looks through the police file of someone’s he is investigating and a number of the pages are stamped “Top Secret!.”) But Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’ is ‘Top Secret!’ as much as his ‘Punch Drunk Love’ is ‘Billy Madison.’ Just like Adam Sandler throwing a public tantrum in real life is horrifying, here, in a “real world” setting, ZAZ humor – siphoned through Paul Thomas Anderson – becomes bizarre and confusing.
In a question and answer session after Saturday morning’s New York Film Festival premiere of ‘Inherent Vice,’ Paul Thomas Anderson compared his new film to Howard Hawks’ ‘The Big Sleep,’ adding, "I couldn’t follow any of it and it didn’t matter.” This is also an apt way of describing ‘Inherent Vice.’ The problem is, ‘Inherent Vice’ isn’t, say, ‘Mulholland Drive’ confusing – it’s still coherent enough that while watching, I still feel like I’m supposed to know what’s going on – and there’s this foreboding feeling that some sort of big reveal is coming that I was going to miss out on while the rest of the audience shrieks with approval. This hypothetical reveal never happens and, after the movie is over, it became apparent that I shouldn’t have been quite that worried because it didn’t matter. None of the plot matters; it’s the individual situations that matter. ‘Inherent Vice’ is almost a series of interesting and loosely connected vignettes.
That loose connection is the search for a real estate tycoon named Mickey Woolfman (Eric Roberts), who is also dating Doc’s ex girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Set in 1970 California, Shasta hires Doc to find Mickey, which leads to a whole mess of intersecting stories that I’m not about to try and detail here. (Though, one of them involves Martin Short as a cocaine-sniffing dentist named Rudy Blatnoyd. And when Short is on screen, it’s like the movie is operating on some sort of stimulant. I suppose I could have used cocaine as a stimulant example.)
It’s a weird thing, I can already tell that ‘Inherent Vice’ will grow on me after time. I can already tell I like it better as I type this than I did while watching it. People will compare ‘Inherent Vice’ to the Coen brothers’ 1998 movie ‘The Big Lebowski’ and that’s totally fair because I’m going to do just that right now. Both films feature protagonists – with an affinity for marijuana use – who experience a remarkable adventure while searching for something that doesn’t matter. Sixteen years later, Mickey Woolfman means about as much as the money for a urine-soaked rug. It matters to the character but it never really matters much to us and, in both of these cases, we wind up being right.
‘Inherent Vice’ isn’t as focused as ‘Boogie Nights,’ the other film that this will draw a lot of comparisons to simply because both are funny and both are from the mind of Anderson. Though, even though the lack of focus in ‘Inherent Vice’ is by design, people expecting this to mimic the beats of ‘Boogie Nights’ will most likely leave disappointed. But, to be fair, after a movie like ‘The Master’ – which was ALL focus – it makes sense that Anderson would want to make his own stoner “comedy.”
And ‘Inherent Vice’ is funny, but it’s not near as traditionally funny as ‘Boogie Nights.’ And listening to Anderson speak after the film, I suspect he thinks he’s made something hilarious. Someone in the audience asked him about a dour tone in a couple of scenes and Anderson looked genuinely sad about the use of the word “dour.” Anderson is such a filmmaking genius at this point, his idea of funny is going to be a lot different than a lot of the rest of us – his version of ‘Top Secret!’ isn’t going to have two guys in a cow costume – but, with ‘Inherent Vice,’ Anderson has made something that’s at least interesting (I think it’s impossible for him not to) that will most likely be quoted infinitely in 16 years.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.