[Screen It]


(2014) (Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin) (R)

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Drama: A pot-smoking hippie detective tries to get to the bottom of a case involving a missing real estate developer and the young woman involved with both of them.
It's 1970 and Larry "Doc" Sportello (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) is some sort of doctor who seemingly gets more business from being a private investigator. When his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (KATHERINE WATERSTON), shows up and states that her married real estate investor lover, Michael Z. "Mickey" Wolfmann (ERIC ROBERTS), is in trouble, that piques his interest. Shasta states that Wolfmann's wife, Sloane (SERENA SCOTT THOMAS), is plotting with her "spiritual advisor," Riggs Warbling (ANDREW SIMPSON), to have him committed to a mental asylum. Rather than go to his deputy district attorney girlfriend, Penny Kimball (REESE WITHERSPOON), for help, Doc starts nosing around. When he goes to a new neighborhood development that Mickey has just started, he has a brief run in with a sex shop worker, Jade (HONG CHAU), before being knocked out.

When he comes to, Doc finds himself next to the body of Mickey's bodyguard, Glenn Charlock (CHRISTOPHER ALLEN NELSON), and thus LAPD homicide detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (JOSH BROLIN) obviously thinks Doc is guilty, especially now that Mickey is also missing. Bigfoot ends up releasing Doc, thanks to the help of maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (BENICIO DEL TORO), and he next gets a call from Hope Harlingen (JENA MALONE) who states that her musician husband, Coy (OWEN WILSON), is dead, although she doesn't truly believe that. The plot thickens when Doc learns that Coy and Shasta knew each other, and that both Coy and Jade mentioned a mysterious boat known as the Golden Fang.

Doc eventually discovers that the corporation behind that is run by a bunch of dentists, including Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (MARTIN SHORT). He just so happens to be involved with bedding and supplying drugs to a former teen runaway, Japonica Fenway (SASHA PIETERSE), who Doc was earlier tasked to find by her wealthy father. As the number of people somehow involved in this case continues to grow, Doc tries to get to the bottom of their involvement and what all of this means.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
It's always entertaining to listen to kids tell stories, be they of the fictitious variety or simply a recap of some event they witnessed or heard about. After all, most everyone is entertained by stories as kids and thus it's part of our very nature. But there's a certain sweet spot in terms of the age of the child storyteller where they're so into the tale that they rush forward through the details, people involved and so on that they become breathless in what amounts to a hyper-extended run-on sentence (sort of like what you just read). It's endearing up to a point although it can then quickly become repetitive and tiresome.

While watching "Inherent Vice," a sort of had that same reaction, albeit if the storyteller was regaling the exploits of an often stoned private eye in early 1970s coastal California. I'll admit that I haven't read Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel of the same name on which this is based, but have heard that most of his works have been categorized as essentially unfilmable due to their complex structures, myriad of characters and so on.

That said, if there's anyone who could potentially pull off such a cinematic adaptation it might have been Robert Altman, but he died a few years before the novel was released. His heir apparent, Paul Thomas Anderson, however, has had success following a similar format of telling complex tales filled with lots of characters, such as occurred in "Magnolia," "Boogie Nights" and "The Master."

Alas, Anderson -- again serving as screenwriter and director (as he also did in the brilliant "There Will Be Blood") -- seems to have gotten a bit lost in the making of this film that features a run-on plot where characters keep arriving as if deposited from some cinematic moving sidewalk straight from the character factory. It's certainly not a fiasco by any means, as there are interesting characters and moments scattered throughout the nearly two and a half hour film, but considering the filmmaker's track record, this has to be considered as something of a disappointment.

The film begins when a young woman (Katherine Waterston) goes to visit her ex-boyfriend (Joaquin Phoenix), who's somehow both a medical practitioner and private eye, about her married real estate developer lover (Eric Roberts) being in danger of being sent to the loony bin by his conniving wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her spiritual advisor lover (Andrew Simpson). Despite the slightly intriguing but far more familiar plot-related elements of that, those three characters barely figure in the film. Instead, it's what "Doc" discovers during his investigation that fuels most of the plot.

While having to deal with a brutish, flattop style homicide detective (Josh Brolin), as well as his hot and cold deputy district attorney girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), he discovers a former musician turned police and government snitch (Owen Wilson) who's deep into a world of drug dealing dentists (Martin Short), a mysteriously related ship named the Golden Fang, a sex shop worker (Hong Chau), a former teen runaway (Sasha Pieterse) he earlier found for her rich parents, an assassin (Peter McRobbie), some neo-Nazi skinheads and so forth.

Each is related to the central plot in one or more ways. Yet, while that can sometimes prove to be fun in certain films as the plot literally thickens and things ultimately get more interesting and fun (or suspenseful, depending on the genre), here it feels like a storyteller's breathless run-on ramblings of "and then this happens, and then he does this, and she does that, and they then find this -- yada, yada, yada."

There's also an occasional female narrator who imparts more information about the characters, plot and some back-story. Personally, I think the use of the old multiple narrator storytelling tactic might have helped the film. While we do have an unreliable "narrator" of sorts in Phoenix's character -- what with him being a hippie stoner who's prone to occasional hallucinations such as seeing Brolin's character appear within an episode of the old TV cop drama "Adam 12" -- that alone isn't quite intriguing enough to serve the overall offering as well as it probably should have.

Despite previously proving he has the ability to juggle lots of characters in multiple storylines, Anderson fumbles a bit here, and the result isn't as mesmerizing as it's usually been in the past. While there are interesting characters, most feel undercooked and simply thrown into the mix before they were ready, as if cooked up by some kid while rambling and rattling off his or her story. "Inherent Vice" rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 7, 2015/ Posted January 9, 2015

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