Based on the book of the same name, Inherent Vice follows Larry "Doc" Sportello, a hippie Private Investigator operating in Los Angeles in the 70's, as he stumbles through several different cases after learning of a plot to do away with wealthy businessman Mickey Wolfmann from his ex-girlfriend, ultimately uncovering a much larger conspiracy at the heart of it all.
Between the varied cinematography and the pseudo-philosophical narration, it would be hard to argue that Inherent Vice isn't a stylish film. The 1970's Los Angeles setting gives it plenty of opportunities for interesting costumes, dialogue and music choices which it consistently capitalise on, and when mixed with the vibrant tone provides the film with a very unique feel to it. I haven't seen anything else in Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography (shoot me, cinema buffs), but Inherent Vice has certainly made me interested to see what else he has done, even if it ends up being totally different to this.
Unfortunately, to say that the story was hard to follow would be an understatement. Despite a mildly complex but still followable first half, around about the mid point of the film I completely lost track of the plot, which was quickly becoming more convoluted and confusing by the minute. I've read a plot synopsis since and it turns out that it really shouldn't have been this difficult to follow, so I can only put this down to something the film either did on purpose, or a dropping of the ball.
It could be argued that the way the story is presented to the audience was deliberately confusing, intended to replicate the way Doc felt as he tried to solve a confusing conspiracy while consistently high. But I'm not sure if a deliberately convoluted and hard to follow plot is better than an accidentally convoluted and hard to follow plot - either way, the plot was convoluted and hard to follow. Ultimately, it comes down to how much tolerance you have for this kind of thing and whether you think the intent of a film maker should matter when evaluating how much you enjoyed a film, which is a whole other argument to be had, and one without a solid answer.
Issues with plot aside, Inherent Vice has it's fair share of interesting characters and scenes to keep you entertained even if you can't follow the story. Joaquin Phoenix is great as Doc, again convincing me that he may be one of the best actors working at the moment after last years brilliant Her. Doc is an incredibly interesting character in his own right, providing much of the films humour and tone by simply being on screen, wrapped up in his own paranoia that even he recognises as being a potential problem, making notes to himself as they come to him that are mostly just gibberish that can be of no use later. I don't doubt that he will go down as something of an iconic character before too long.
Equally great here is Josh Brolin playing Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, the tough talking, civil rights ignoring member of the LAPD with a particularly strong disliking of Doc. They have a more exaggerated and surreal buddy cop type dynamic in which Bigfoot relies on Doc while hating everything he stands for but begrudgingly respecting the man himself, while Doc remains thoroughly confused about where he stands with a man that is inconsistent in his treatment of Doc at best. The scenes they share are the highlights of the film, often surreal in the most entertaining of ways and with a strong sense of humour that highlights the many ways that Bigfoot himself is just as messed up, if not more so, than Doc.
I'm conflicted about how much I actually enjoyed Inherent Vice to be honest - on the one hand, I was consistently entertained despite losing track of the plot, and on the other I'm not sure if plots aforementioned convolution is a forgivable offence or not. It ends up being a film that I'd struggle to actually recommend to anyone, the flashes of brilliance found within failing to really make up for the incoherency of the plot for most people. Having said that, I've half convinced myself that I actually really liked it while writing this, and I'm certain that if I was to rewatch it with a better knowledge of the story, I'd probably be a lot more positive about it. Either way, Inherent Vice has the potential to really work as a film for some people depending on your level of tolerance for certain aspects of it, and will no doubt go down as somewhat of a cult classic in the near future despite some of the issues it faces.