309431id1h_InherentVice_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet_6C.inddBy Jarrod Jones. If you find it difficult to consider Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice as a vital piece of cinema, you’d do well to consider this: as a vibrant, semi-cohesive throwback to the days of true, lurid film noir, where time and peace seemed to freeze for all but the decadent and the damned, Anderson’s film carves out a place where neon-soaked ne’er-do-wells learn absolutely nothing other than what they already knew – that life is an utterly messy quagmire of a thing.

Or something like that. While it’s true that Inherent Vice is something of a palate-cleanser for director P.T. Anderson – and after the frontal dual-assault of There Will Be Blood and The Master, who could blame him – the film is Anderson at his most effortless, a tour of force through the zeitgeist that was the post-Manson Family ’60s, a potboiler that sets itself on a simmer during an era where America didn’t exactly know what to do with itself except to persevere. It’s a better movie than it deserves to be.

Anderson’s Vice doesn’t kick off so much as it drowsily relates its inciting incident through a typically smoky-voiced narration – a damsel in distress strutting through a private dicks’ office – only this time its by a jaded, been-there surfer girl (laconically related by Joanna Newsom). Through this we quickly learn that the world inhabited by Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is going to be utterly decimated by a flighty dame in need (Katherine Waterston). Of course this is nothing new – we’ve already seen Mary Astor ruin any chance of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade achieving an easier life in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, among many other relevant examples. Vice doesn’t seek to reinterpret what we already know – even when it’s faced with adapting Thomas Pynchon’s famously scuzzy yarn – but it does reach to entertain, and for the most part, it succeeds admirably.

maxresdefaultThat’s mostly attributable through Anderson’s chosen stable of actors – most of which are reasonably seasoned for such buffoonery, like Josh Brolin’s thick-jawed Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, or Hong Chau’s manically blasé masseuse, Jade. Every single member of Vice‘s ridiculously capable cast, up to and including Benicio del Toro’s Sauncho Smilax and Reese Witherspoon’s Penny Kimball, are game for the absurdity set before them, and it works, even if it sometimes feels like Hollywood nepotism. (Remember Walk the Line? You will after this flick.)

Through Newsom’s narration we’re related a mystery, a governmentally mandated conspiracy of something or whatever, but none of it really matters – and none of the stoner, mush-mouthed dialogue is gonna help anyway – so all this nonsense falls on Anderson’s current pet du jour Joaquin Phoenix, who inhabits his Doc Sportello with as much verve and vibrancy as he did with The Master‘s Freddie Quell. That’s a fine thing, mostly because we live in the wake of a post-I’m Still Here Phoenix, where the actor can continue to astound with his all-over-the-place versatility. It’s absurd how good he is in Inherent Vice. When the forty-year-old actor ought to be slumming it, he displays an inane, Marx Bros-esque vibrancy. Phoenix’s physicality endears in spite of his haphazardly-placed muttonchops.

Inherent-Vice_2014-30That leaves little else for the rest of the film, though the frequent celebrity cameos make for an amusing romp. (Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, and Martin Short all appear simply to confound.) And though the distracting presence of Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson should be more than enough to keep the audience engaged, Inherent Vice bothers to go even further, easily inferring a reverence towards Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep: a monumental slice of nonsense that was an otherwise effective vehicle for its leading man, a film that had a Chandler instead of a Pynchon. (And a Bogart instead of Phoenix.) It’s a mystery that never demands an answer, and even at a daunting 148 minutes, it never adequately provides one.

Watching Phoenix’s Doc inhale blunt after blunt (after blunt) dulls the expectations of Inherent Vice as it does the mental strength of our seemingly dauntless hero.  There’s an emptiness found in losing both respect and expectation of our leading man, and it seems that Anderson’s film chooses to embrace that disappointment. And that’s fine. The lack of heroism enjoyed by such films as the Coen Bros’ The Big Lebowski or Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas aids in demystifying some of the majesty a P.T. Anderson joint usually demands. In expecting a literary indulgence, Inherent Vice offers a trifle. And that might have been the point.