Inherent Vice

Posted on January 8, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extensive substance abuse including drinking, smoking, and drugs, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 9, 2015
Copyright IAC films 2014
Copyright IAC films 2014

We love mystery stories because they reassure us that questions have answers and justice is possible. But some mystery stories are there to remind us that life is complicated and messy, and sometimes answers are just more questions. This is one of those stories.

Inherent Vice is a novel by the famously private author Thomas Pynchon, whose books are dense, complex, and thus rich fodder for grad students and intelligentsia. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) is also known for dense, complex stories, and he likes to focus on decay, corruption, and bruised innocence. They are well matched in this weed noir story, sort of Dashiell Hammett crossed with Hunter Thompson.

The original set-up is right out of a classic detective story. A beautiful woman named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) visits her ex-boyfriend, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), some kind of hippie detective, to ask for his help. The narrator (singer Joanna Newsom), in a hypnotic, vocal fry deadpan, lets us know right away that Doc would be better off telling her to leave. But he cannot say no to Shasta or to a mystery, so he is on the case.

Shasta’s new boyfriend is a wealthy (and married) developer named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Shasta believes that Wolfman’s wife and her boyfriend are trying to have him committed so they can get his money.  As Doc begins to look into this, he encounters many odd characters, most with their own unsolved mysteries, some of which begin to intersect with the Wolfman story or with each other or both.  And it all comes together, or doesn’t, in a haze of, yes, decay, corruption, and bruised innocence that is about the failure of the American Dream or existential chaos or the fragility of our concept of reality, or maybe just that the journey and those who accompany us along the way are more important than the destination.  Also, something about the optimism and passion for changing society of the 60’s giving way to the me-decade and passion for individual self-exploration of the 70’s.

Doc encounters a number of extremely colorful characters as he explores a series of mysteries that appear to be linked, or perhaps all part of one big mystery involving a secret and very powerful malevolent force.  The only one who seems to know what’s going on is the almost-never-seen narrator, and it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to root for the characters or laugh at them.  But as always, Anderson’s impeccable casting and music choices are captivating, and there is an amusing contrast between his attention to every detail of camera placement, editing, production design, and dialog and the convoluted storyline and druggy fog surrounding the characters.  I’m not sure what it was that I watched, but I have to admit I enjoyed watching it.

Parents should know that this film has just about everything we consider “adult content,” including constant very strong, explicit, and crude language, nudity and very explicit sexual references and situations including prostitution and adultery, drinking, drugs of all kinds and drug dealing, and violence including guns.

Family discussion: Why did Doc help Shasta? Why did he help Coy? Why is Doc a detective?

If you like this, try: “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” by the same director and the book by Thomas Pynchon

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Based on a book Crime Drama Movies -- format Mystery
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