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Film Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice (2015; Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

Pleasurably sunk in the acid-soaked sunshiny California menace of 1970, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic take on Thomas Pynchon’s hippie-era detective semi-comic novel dawns on its viewer gradually as a serpentine trifle made to be anything but. Tracing multiple strands of crime tenuously connected by a disappeared real-estate magnate and his beach-girl mistress, Inherent Vice holds together (to whatever extent it does) through one desultory dialogue scene after another under the deceptively steady navigation of its dope-head private investigator protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix).

Doc bakes out on pot at his humble beach house much of the time, meeting clients semi-surreptitiously out of a doctor’s office. The aforementioned beach girl, Shasty Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), is also a cherished ex-girlfriend of Doc’s, and when she asks him to intervene in a convoluted plot to commit her lover Mickey Wolfmann (a piece of pitch-perfect cameo casting that I wouldn’t dream of ruining) and institutionalize him against his will, he can hardly refuse, especially when she vanishes as well. Other cases and personalities intervene, alternately distracting Doc and weaving together with the Shasta/Wolfmann disappearances: black militants and white supremacist thugs, a “happy endings” massage parlour, corrupt LAPD cops, a misbehaving rich girl, a lascivious drug-slinging dentist, a violent loan shark with a baseball bat obsession, and a shadowy sea-bound drug smuggling operation known only as “the Golden Fang”.

Any plot summary more detailed than the one provided basically misses the point of Inherent Vice. This is a pure playground of textures for Anderson: the visual brew of period California, the tangible attentions of his ensemble cast, the intoxicating cadences of Pynchon’s prose, fermenting in the dialogue as well as in the narration by Doc’s chorus-like friend Sortilège (Joanna Newsom). Pynchon (as filtered through Anderson’s screenplay) infuses even slight exchanges with sociopolitical portent and displays a particular flair for naming redolent of a Charles Dickens twisted on mescaline and agave syrup: both tendencies are most evident in Doc’s consistent foil, LAPD Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin with a flat-top bullet haircut), a mega-repressed hippie-hating square cop with an unsuccessful bit-part moonlighting gig as an actor. His relationship with Doc is conducted with open hostility but is also suffused with a weird psychiatric neediness, all of which explodes in the film’s funniest moment, when he consumes an entire platter of narcotics in front of an incredulous Doc.

I don’t mean to suggest that Anderson’s grasp of Pynchon’s story or language ever loosens or slips (he’s too fine and self-possessed a filmmaker for that), but Inherent Vice fragments into a series of individual indelible elements: Doc awaking next to a dead body and pool of blood in a desert trailer park, the gathered phalanx of LAPD officers and squad cars standing him down; a silvery reminiscence of Doc and Shasta sheltering from a downpour in a doorway set to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” (“Harvest” shows up on the soundtrack as well, which is dynamite as per Anderson’s habit and melds beautifully with Jonny Greenwood’s score); a loopy trip to the asylum that houses Wolfmann, chaperoned by a doctor played by Jefferson Mays, whose manic fanaticism cracks and shivers Anderson’s meticulous construction even in such a small dose; and any number of superb small roles inhabited by actors more or less recognizable: Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Peter McRobbie, Owen Wilson, and Martin Short.

That’s all well and good as far as scattershot impressions go, you might say, but is Inherent Vice any good taken as a whole? It is, provisionally, but it doesn’t ever really manage to be the film that it wants to be, that Anderson obviously intends it to be. He clearly aims for a freewheeling psychedelically-infused romp through the tail end of the hippie era; he cites Cheech and Chong and broad farces like Police Squad! and Airplane! as inspiration, and it’s kind of laughable how much Anderson misses those particular targets if that’s where his gun was pointing (The Big Lebowski is also an evident touchstone, albeit a far funnier and repeatedly rewarding one).

Not only does it seem that Pynchon’s source material does not support such an approach, neither does it play to Anderson’s strengths. The artful misdirection and ambiguity of meaning of Anderson’s films (nearly a decade later, what does the final scene of There Will Be Blood actually mean?) conceals the manifestly controlled nature of his filmmaking. If he’s not quite prone to the OCD doll-house dioramas that characterize the work of his surname-sharing fellow American indie auteur Wes Anderson, the comparison is not entirely unproductive. Inherent Vice is definitely quite good but there’s a wilder and more woolly entertainment lurking in this movie, a brass ring that its crafter wished to grasp that remains tantalizingly – and perhaps a little disappointingly – out of reach.

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