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08 Jan 2015

In the Weeds: 'Inherent Vice' Will Make Sense to Stoners, but Non-Users May Need a Second Viewing

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Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice.

I abstain from weed because some people really shouldn’t do drugs. If you are like me, you might need two or three viewings to completely get the vibe and plot of Inherent Vice.

However, if you watch the movie while mildly high, you might follow everything in one shot.

I’ve watched director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film twice now, and it was almost like watching a different movie the second time through. I enjoyed it both times, but the language and proceedings made more sense to me on the second go-round. I must have some sort of latent stoner sensibility stored in my brain from bong hits in years past.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sloppy private investigator in 1970 Los Angeles who operates, inexplicably, out of a doctor’s office. When an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) goes missing, he conducts a haphazard investigation into her disappearance that involves dead people who aren’t dead, drug-dealers and kidnapped real estate moguls. All of these things are being investigated by a guy who is seriously high most of the time, and who pieces things together at his own mellow, clumsy pace.

Along the way, Doc comes across a parade of colorful characters—with each one played by a brilliant actor or actress. Josh Brolin is perfection as an unstable, macho cop with a penchant for kicking down Doc’s door. Phoenix and Brolin have a lot of fun making the characters bitter enemies, even though they’re almost chummy at times. Brolin’s final scene is, shall we say, surreal and bizarre on joyous levels.

Owen Wilson does some of his best work in years as a musician, believed dead, who has gone into hiding. He has scenes with Phoenix that are borderline brilliant, as does Martin Short as a lascivious dentist with a taste for young girls and pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. Anderson may have given Short his best role since his SCTV days, even though Short is only in a few scenes.

Benicio del Toro shows up as Doc’s attorney; his character reminded me of his similar role in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Reese Witherspoon caps off a great year by playing Doc’s uptight current girlfriend, and Jena Malone has a terrific scene as a wife who pleasantly and happily discusses her drug addiction and missing husband.

The mystery, if you want to call it that, ties up fairly cleanly. The film, despite what some folks are saying, has a beginning, a middle and an end that makes sense. You just have to work at it a bit.

The locations, clothing and hairstyles are very 1970s. The film plays like a stoner mood piece, swinging from relaxed to paranoid, unintelligible to highly coherent—as if you are going through the various phases of some high-grade kush.

You might be thinking, “Hey, this sounds a little bit like The Big Lebowski.” Lebowski was a lot cuter, and far funnier. Both stories do, however, feature a stoner dude investigating a missing person. (It should be noted that the Coens wrote and produced Lebowski 11 years before Thomas Pynchon put out the novel on which Inherent Vice is based.)

If you’ve never smoked weed, but have a friend that does smoke, go see the movie with them. You may not get it, while your friend’s mind will be blown. He or she will explain some things to you, and you’ll be all set for a second, more-informed viewing.

Also: Do not smoke weed for the first time before seeing Inherent Vice. The stuff out there now is pretty damn powerful, and the site of Phoenix’s Wolverine chops will surely freak out a first-timer.

Inherent Vice opens Thursday, Jan. 8, at theaters including the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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