Joaquin Phoenix, with his weirdo-chameleon persona in the media (remember when he grew a beard and said he was quitting acting to become a rapper?), is, at the very least, always interesting. When you see him in Inherent Vice as “Doc” Sportello, with his hippie mutton-chop sideburns and greasy white-man afro, well, it seems to fit him. Ambling around in hippie shirts and bare feet as a 1970-era unconventional detective in an LA beach town, he slips into the role like filthy feet slipping into a worn pair of moccasins.
Doc is recruited by his ex-flame Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) to investigate a shady real estate mogul (I think?) named Wolfmann, who seems to have disappeared. At least I think that is what was going on, as the first scene between Doc and Shasta was so bizarre, I wasn’t quite sure what they were saying in their stilted dialogue. Were they narrating their own scene? Were they speaking in second-person? Before I had too long to scratch my head in confusion, the story starts tumbling forward in lurches and ambles, introducing characters like Doc’s detective buddy/nemesis Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a very funny Josh Brolin), a presumed-dead musician named Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), Coy’s heroin-head wife Hope (Jena Malone, with distractingly strange teeth), a stern and sexy federal agent (Reese Witherspoon), and on and on.
There are gangsters, drugs, dentists, and lots and lots of shots of Doc smokin’ doobies. As the subplots intertwined and tangled, I have to admit I didn’t really know what was going on for most of the movie. In my head, it ended up being a series of memorable scenes, like Shasta Ray’s seduction scene (where all she was wearing was a shell necklace), Bigfoot eating a mouthful of pot (and Doc subsequently bursting into tears because of it), and a woman name Jade (scene-stealing Hong Chau) hissing in a whisper, “Golden Fang!” But what did this all mean? Heck if I know!
I have to admit, the movie was not what I expected from the strange, mainstreamy, unfunny, slapstick trailers that were spliced together to advertise this film. It is weirder (and funnier) than the ads lead you to believe. But it is also kind of an incohesive mess, like trying to have a conversation with someone who is too high to maintain a train of thought. And, at a whopping 2 1/2 hours, it is way longer than it needs to be. Would the film improve on the second view? I’ve heard yes. But it might help to get stoned first.