"Inherent vice" is a marine insurance business term that describes breakage and damage you just can't avoid; windows break, coffee spills, plates fall. This sporadic nature of conflicts and humans defines the film and emphasizes the idea that there doesn't have to be a coherent logic to what you watch. The "incoherence" is characteristic of film noir, which Inherent Vice experiments with using a story that is impossible to follow on first watch and visually with a silhouette shot of Doc staring into complete fog. Doc’s constant perversions and drug use follow the author Thomas Pynchon's theme that American life is "something to be escaped from," and every odd character Doc runs into emanates this subtle sentiment of reverie. Paul Thomas Anderson captures the endless, stoned-out summer of Pynchon's epic beach read with mastery, and his adapted screenplay is one of the best film has seen in years. The initial shots of people from the neck down before the immeasurably talented Robert Elswit gradually zooms into their face until they just have to spill out their life stories and the awesome soundtrack that includes a CAN song accompanying an almost character-study of Doc are only a couple of the fantastic elements that create Inherent Vice as Anderson's most undervalued and overstated work to date.
Katherine Waterston is beautifully raw and Joaquin Phoenix delivers yet another awe-inspiring performance for the third year in a row (see: The Master in 2012, Her in 2013), but an overlooked character who isn't really "seen" stood out to me. Joanna Newsom, commonly known as a vocalist and harpist, debuts in her first film as a narrator and hopeful counselor existing only in Doc's imagination. Her folksy, Appalachian voice brings absolute radiance and eccentricity to Pynchon's written phrases like "clear as vodka that's been sitting in ice all day" or "Shasta's combination of face ingredients." Her narration sometimes peeks in to discuss the current state of affairs in Southern California or speak up for what's on Doc's mind, and Newsom is so perfectly casted because I felt shivers (good shivers) every time after she charmingly spoke. Her occasional visually concrete role as Doc's spiritual guide Sortilège (which is a French term that refers to "the practice of foretelling the future") is reassuring and highlights the earthy, mesmerizing presence she has in both her music and newfound acting career.
Inherent Vice isn't a blurry, stoner fantasyland filled with mumbling hippies, but an attempt to show our world at its finest via an expansive series of clues, clippings, and conversation blurbs against the strains of Neil Young. The ending is sharp, humorous, and so carefully drawn out that I found myself pondering and smiling about the love in this movie hours after I left the theater. Doc Sportello is a fool with the ethos of Kerouac and the nerve of Marlowe who attempts to find his way back into a past that, despite him and Shasta, had gone on into the future. Rollicking, light-hearted, and funny, Inherent Vice is the crown gem of the neo-noir era.