Broken Embraces and Unforgettable Form: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’

Inherent Vice Movie Review - 2014 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

Six years ago, the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar released Los Abrazos Rotos; a film dedicated to cinema’s varying styles and forms along with the power of memories. While many have correlated Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the opening credits scene instantly reminded me of Broken Embraces due to the shared use of Can’s 1972 track “Vitamin C.” Almodóvar’s film is based on a photo taken at a beach, and Anderson’s film — an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel — opens with a beach shot and the same lyrics that made such an impression on this cinephile back in 2009: “Hey you! You’re losing your Vitamin C!”

The protagonist of Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello, often lacks physical energy, but he charges forward with his own pace and style… much like Anderson’s direction of the 148-minute film. After the 158 minutes of There Will Be Blood (2007) and the 144 minutes of The Master (2012), viewers shouldn’t expect a clean and easy ride through Inherent Vice. A second viewing will be necessary for some, and I’m looking forward to my own.

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Inherent Vice Movie Review - 2014 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

Doc Sportello smokes a little weed (ok, a lot), sports thick mutton chops that would make Waylon Jennings blush and mumbles in conversation. See, he’s agreed to help his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) by finding her boyfriend/real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who may or may not have been abducted and committed to a psych ward. Standing in the way of the often-confused Sportello is a clean-cut/no-bullshit detective nicknamed “Bigfoot” (Josh Brolin), who takes down bad guys in real life and even on the hit show Dragnet.

Rather than breaking down the entire plot of Inherent Vice, I’ll just say that Mr. Sportello encounters characters with names like Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (Benicio de Toro), Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph), Japonica Fenway (Sasha Piererse) and even a madman dentist named Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short). The collective fingers point to something called “The Golden Fang,”  a character with the moniker of Puck Beaverton (Swastika face tattoo) and a California cult. Grantland recently counted down the top 20 characters from Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and Inherent Vice boasts an ever more colorful group of personalities.

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Inherent Vice Movie Review - 2014 Paul Thomas Anderson Film

Given that Doc Sportello has difficulty remembering people, places and times, Inherent Vice will likely be more entertaining the second time around. The broken embraces of Doc Sportello ensure a comfortable detachment from reality, and although he embarks on a journey of true crime, the only truth seems to come from what he can see directly in front of him. Joaquin Phoenix delivers yet another iconic performance in Inherent Vice and has now become one the most charismatic actors of the last 20 years. Like a true pro, he dominates each scene while making everyone around him better.

If Phoenix serves as the Michael Jordan of Inherent Vice, then Anderson is Phil Jackson. Together, they run the show like nobody else can. The director runs the triangle to perfection and allows each supporting character a moment to shine (highlight: Katherine Waterston’s scene in which she explains the meaning of “inherent vice”).

Inherent Vice may feel utterly broken at times, but there’s probably a reason for that. Embrace it.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.