Nothing in this film is ever for certain. Much like the look of Doc Sportello’s apartment, which sometimes has the cover of smoke from his constant drug use, Inherent Vice never seems to fit the blocks completely like we want it to in the spaces. While the more generic cop drama may have the spaces of the mystery begin to line up and go into place, Inherent Vice never abides by the rules and instead sends us floating around into the nether, which is good for some but not for everyone.
The case begins when Doc’s (Joaquin Phoenix) former girlfriend, Shasta Key Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), comes to see him one night and enlists his help. She then disappears with real estate mogul Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and Doc looks to a cast of characters including Jade (Hong Chau), Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), and Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
Phoenix sells the role and gives us this strangely sympathetic hippie stoner that we root for along the way. While the heart of the film looks like it will be the romance between Doc and Shasta Fey, it turns into more of a bromance between the rough tough police officer in Bigfoot Bjornsen and the hippie Doc that makes for the most compelling relationship of the entire film.
As mentioned before, Inherent Vice never feels compelled to follow the traditional arc that a regular mystery story should be following. While some of the points stay constant, the scattered nature of the story forces us to stay on our toes as new faces and old acquaintances pop in and out of the film at will and we are never sure of how important or how much we should pay attention to what they say. But the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot works as a parallel to the film at hand.
Bigfoot signifies these traditional mystery or cop dramas that the audience goes in expecting and it is satirized within the film as the detective appears on a traditional cop show that Doc turns on the TV at one point in the film. Doc represents the true mood of the film. He is off-centered, consistently high, and moving at a pace that makes us unsure whether he is moving forward to where he needs to be or treading water.
By the end, Bigfoot abides by the rules of the film. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has a mood and a style that he clearly sets into place with Inherent Vice and as much as our generic views (or Bigfoot) fight it, there is some merit to the way that the film works and almost feels more satisfying by the end. In an almost metaphorical act that shows that we are finding accepting what Inherent Vice is, Bigfoot devours the weed that sits in front of Doc before exiting over the door that he had just kicked down.
I found that this encompassed the film. It never felt like it was going where we thought it should go, in the end, Inherent Vice found its way to where it wanted to go, not where we wanted it to. This is something that becomes more clear the farther I came away from the film and something that makes a second viewing imperative for a narrative like this.
While this makes the story that much more interesting, it also creates a disconnect from the style and mood that seemed to be all around the story. While Anderson added a few songs from the time period, the score (by Jonny Greenwood) almost feels like it should be in a sweeping classical epic rather than a drugged up look at the 1970s and some of the people within that world.
Overall, Inherent Vice is something of its own and the narrative that Anderson presents to us is something unlike the typical mystery story and by the end, much like Bigfoot, we are asked to either get with the program or just give up on trying to be on board. This disconnect between the options is made much tougher for us as there is never a style or score that can bring us all together, but that is clearly Anderson’s intention.
The director takes us on a trip that some of us think we know the ending to, and while it didn’t go where I thought it would, I wasn’t angry or disappointed that I took it.