I wanted so badly to not only like Inherent Vice but also understand the film in a way no one else did. Instead, I stumbled out of the theater feeling sleepy and almost as if I inhaled the second hand smoke that’s in just about every scene. What we have on our hands is a protagonist much like The Big Lebowski’s the Dude, whose film is based off an American classic noir The Big Sleep. All three have many similarities, except the only overall success being The Big Lebowski for having the most likable and hysterical characters. I remember watching The Big Sleep in one of my intro film classes and the only things that kept my attention was the noir’s captivating shadows, costume design, and Lauren Bacall. The same can be said about Inherent Vice. Joaquin Phoenix plays a private investigator Doc and never falls a step out of character. Despite his lackadaisical attitude and grungy appearance, he’s a likable guy and despite the films lack of continuity we relay on Doc for our one entertaining constant.
One of the most frustrating parts about Inherent Vice are the women that surround Doc’s investigations to find his old lover, an ex-heroine addict, the Golden Fang (whatever that is) and all the other side jobs he’s taken on. The women—all minor characters—leave absolutely no room for imagination. Maybe they are meant to portray the type of femme fatales that always make a story more interesting, except they don’t hold the same classy, dangerous, or secretive traits like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or again like Laura Bacall in The Big Sleep. Instead, their revealing outfits, gaudy makeup and constant references to sex make them desperate women whose purpose becomes simple and known very quickly. They are eye candy—much like the blondes in last year’s Wolf of Wall Street. Viewers don’t have to imagine what the women look like in Inherent Vice when they are behind closed doors with their lovers because their butt cheeks are already hanging out of their miniskirts or they strut across the room completely naked, giving the male gaze on and off screen exactly what they didn’t even ask for. That’s not to say there aren’t women or moments in the film where they act human and respectable. Take Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) for instance, who acts like a mother figure to Doc and whose point of view the story is told. Except, like the cowboy in The Big Lebowski I wonder why we should trust her when there are many others who know Doc more closely. Her voice-over pops in out during the film as does her homely appearance. It’s a relief, though, to see a woman with a different look and agenda. I can’t say all things are frustrating with Anderson’s new film.
Like his rest, the cinematography is always a wonderful, unique treat. The long takes paired with great music are present in Inherent Vice too. One of my favorite scenes of all times is in Anderson’s Boogie Nights when Night Ranger blares through the speakers while Dirk Diggler and accomplices sit terrified on the couch during their much anticipated drug deal. I have the same strange but giddy feeling when Doc struts through the L.A streets with Neil Young singing in the background and wonder where he’s going next and who he’ll meet. Smoke is also one of the most interesting props used in Inherent Vice. It’s not the tobacco smoke we see in noirs after a couple lies in bed with the previous actions left unsaid. The marijuana smoke follows Doc wherever he goes and leads the lens into different parties, different rooms with fabulous 60’s attire, and once again superb music riding with the camera.
Don’t not see Inherent Vice because of what others are saying. See Inherent Vice because of what others notice and use your own eyes, own connections to see all that’s packed into this puzzling work. I’m a little biased, I admit, because Anderson’s work in my eyes is typically flawless. But there’s always different ways to get people talking—and talking we do. Perhaps that was the motive behind the making of the film. Even if our remarks aren’t always positive or helpful, at least we haven’t stopped thinking about Inherent Vice and ultimately wondering what the heck is going on.