Inherent Vice’s Fatal Flaw

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January 14, 2015 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Never have I ever had to sit through a movie as thoroughly unenjoyable and frustrating as Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film Inherent Vice.  Because Inherent Vice tries to be so many different things, it ultimately becomes nothing more than a nonsensically contorted mashup of loosely affiliated plotlines, most of which ultimately lead nowhere.  Vice has the soul of a noir, but it’s trapped within the body of a post-modernists wet dream.  Because it tries to play to the tropes defined by these two opposing genres, Inherent Vice strangles itself with a noose made up of useless revelations and a narrative that loses itself within its many, superfluous tendrils.

The heart of the story revolves around the idea of that one girl you just can’t say “No” to; the ex-girlfriend who you’d still do anything for, regardless of who you’re currently seeing.  The entire plot is set in motion when P.I., and main character, Doc (played by Joaquin Phoenix), gets a surprise visit from Shasta, an ex-girlfriend, asking him to keep a lookout on her new boyfriend, real estate mogul and recent skinhead inductee, Mickey Wolfmann, (played by Eric Roberts for all three minutes that the character is actually shown on screen).  That is the inciting action of the film, and despite the secondary, tertiary, and superfluous amounts of additional plotlines, Doc’s mission for the first 2/3 of the movie is to look into the disappearance of Wolfmann.

No matter how high you are while watching it, Inherent Vice will never make any sense.

In true post-modern fashion, the lead story is slowly overshadowed until it’s lost in a sea of useless information and illogical plot progressions.  Right as the film’s second act comes to a close, the lead plot is immediately terminated with only the vaguest sense of resolution, and supplanted by the film’s tertiary plot.  Continuing with this pointless exploration of postmodernism, the plot lines emerge out of some throwaway line of dialogue, and evaporate just as quickly into obscurity.  The problem that arises though, is that there is a clear plotline undercutting the entire post-modern atmosphere of the movie.  It’s married to the plot of solving Wolfmann’s disappearance for so long that it becomes frustrating when the film deviates too far from that main thread.  However, the plot itself is not fleshed out to a satisfying degree, an obvious sacrifice on Anderson’s part in order to intentionally breathe a chaotic sense of postmodernism into the movie.  Instead of it being a case of 2+2=5, the amount of gratuitous and complexly pointless additional plots feels more like 1+1+1+1+1+1=______.

So much of what happens over the duration of the movie is entirely unnecessary and irrelevant to the viewers that Inherent Vice ultimately chokes on its own excess flab.  From cocaine addicted dentists to neo-Nazis to a phony insane asylum that doubles as a reeducation camp for the United States government, the vast majority of the dialogue spoken and the places visited and the characters introduced all serve to hinder or derail the main narrative of the movie.  While searching for Wolfmann, Doc finds himself caught up in a heroin smuggling ring that has everything and nothing to do with his entire life.  The best that viewers can hope for is that concurrent plot threads tangentially intersect.  How searching for his ex-girlfriend’s current boyfriend leads Doc to meeting a recovering heroin addict posing as a sax player at the behest of the Nixon administration is still beyond me.  Even thinking about what Jade’s brothel has to do with an LAPD sanctioned cop-killer or straight-laced cop, Bigfoot (played by Josh Brolin), is enough to make anyone lose their mind.

Being a fan of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, I never thought I’d say this, but Inherent Vice is a movie that has too much dialogue for its own good, 80% of which is complete and utter nonsense.  Not only does this make it difficult for viewers to figure out which bits of dialogue are crucial to the plot, but when something eventually does happen, like Doc being framed for murder, or his kidnapping, viewers are forced to try and make sense of how they got to that point in a way that will make them question their own intelligence.  Most major revelations are described, not explained nor shown, and in a squall of needless talking and superfluous gabbing, it becomes infuriatingly easy to miss a crucial beat.  The entire history of drug cartel, The Golden Fang, is told at three separate times, by three separate characters, and all three explanations are completely different.  It’s easy to chalk up these stylistic decisions to post-modernism, where nothing is necessary and anything should happen, but even a modicum of cohesion is needed in order to tell the story.

An absolutely pointless allusion to The Last Supper highlights a big flaw of the movie-The meticulous planning of the irrelevant and worthless.


There are two types of post-modernism, the good kind, which is self-aware, self-referential and introspective, essentially function without form, and the bad kind, which is spastically nonsensical, purposeless, self-absorbed, think form without function.  Unlike Fight Club, a post-modern tale that translated perfectly to film, Inherent Vice is the bad kind of post-modern; postmodernism for the sake of postmodernism.  In trying to analyze and deconstruct the 1960s, it just reaffirmed the negative stereotypes of the decade, all the while telling a clichéd story about a guy who can’t get over that one girl.  It fails on the noir side because it detaches itself so aggressively from the noir archetypes, and it fails as post-modern art because despite all the excess layers of fat, it’s still tied to those noir necessitates at heart.  The sultry, mysterious ex-girlfriend, the down and out P.I., and disappearance of a socialite; there’s no way to do a satisfying post-modern take on these noir clichés, so they are all rendered empty shells with no real pathos to them.  They are characters that we want to be clichés, but they all bum around, doped up to their eyeballs, so much so that they meander along from place to place, only making sense by pure chance, just like the dialogue, just like the narrative.

Because all the characters seem disinterested and apathetic, it’s tough to gauge who really shines in Inherent Vice.  Martin Short gives a very spirited and enthusiastic performance in his all too brief appearance.  Conversely, Reese Witherspoon, who plays Doc’s girlfriend provides a much needed anchor to reality, however, she too is grossly underutilized in the film.  Porn star Belladonna’s cameo was a nice surprise in itself, although it too came in a scene that had absolutely no purpose in the film at all…like most scenes in Inherent Vice.[1]  Brolin plays his typecast role, that of the straight laced good guy, and Joaquin Phoenix most likely plays an exaggerated version of himself.  Despite a few entertaining performances, none of the actors demonstrate their range or skill.

I always knew Belladonna was a good actress.


If Wes Anderson remade The Big Lebowski based on a script written by Kevin Smith circa 2001, you’d get Inherent Vice.  If director Paul Thomas Anderson’s goal was to create a thoroughly dissatisfying and aggravating movie experience, which I believe was his intent, then Inherent Vice is a rousing success.  Inherent Vice is not a fun film experience because the viewer will always feel mocked and belittled by a movie that tries way too hard to tell you that it doesn’t care about you.

It goes beyond merely being devoid of a tangible plotline, as plenty of movies have been successful without a plot.[2]  Inherent Vice seems like it wants to deconstruct the very notion of storytelling in a post-modern (and unnecessary) all the while clinging to one of the most clichéd tropes in the entire history of fiction.  The movie sets itself up for failure when it spends most of its time, however irrelevantly, building up one plotline, only to completely disavow it after 100 minutes.  I tend to take exception to a movie that so blatantly tells me to “fuck off” as Inherent Vice does, and seeing Bigfoot randomly break down the door to Doc’s apartment, eat every shred of weed in the apartment and then walk out like nothing happened surmises all the times that Inherent Vice went out of its way to antagonize viewers.


[1] I’d recognize that gap in her teeth anywhere.  Also the editors did a really shitty job of blocking out the tattoos on her knuckles.

[2] Clerks, Diner, and A Serious Man just to name a few.


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