by Sean Hutchinson
In its 2009 review of writer Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” Rolling Stone said that it was “the funniest book Pynchon has written,” and called it “a crazed and majestic summary of everything that makes him a uniquely huge American voice. It has the moral fury that’s fueled his work from the start – his ferociously batshit compassion for America and the lost tribes who wander through it.” Switch out some words and an emphasis here or there and you’ll have an appropriately perfect way to describe director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film adaptation of Pynchon’s novel. Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a wild and weird noir-tinged freakout that brings the filmmaker back to the ensemble pieces that sparked his early career, but goes above and beyond the brooding aplomb of more recent work like The Master.
The story goes like this: Our main man Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a down and out PI with anti-establishment sideburns and permanently scraggly threads, finds his marijuana-fogged lounge life suddenly interrupted by the appearance of former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who is currently seeing millionaire real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She alerts Doc to a plot hatched by Wolfmann’s wife Sloane and her lover to allegedly steal all of Wolfmann’s money and have him admitted to a mental institution. After both Shasta and Wolfmann go missing, a pandora’s weed box of paranoid conspiracies is opened involving everyone from Doc’s former LAPD nemesis, Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a never-crazier Josh Brolin); a secretive drug smuggling syndicate known as The Golden Fang; a cadre of neo-Nazi bikers; a group of hippie lowlife musicians; a demented company of dentists; and a whole mess of other whacked out characters that breeze through Doc’s peripheral.
Taking a cue from Pynchon’s sprawling source material, Anderson piles on the tangled storyline scene after scene, building an intentionally convoluted yarn indebted to films like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Phoenix’s mumbly delivery and bedraggled private dick persona bears more than a passing resemblance to Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe), Terry Gilliam’s similarly drug-fueled film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the twisted LA world of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and noir classics like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Viewers will also undoubtedly note the easy similarities between Inherent Vice and the Coen Brothers’ 1998 narcotic-noir The Big Lebowski, but Vice never veers into the outright comedic parody found in the Coens’ film. It is, however, Anderson’s funniest and most intentionally comedic work to date – Anderson himself has cited the Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker films including Airplane! and The Naked Gun as inspirations – but part of Inherent Vice’s simmering west coast tone sets itself apart with the core drama at hand.
Despite dialogue rife with colorful connections between characters and places peppered throughout, trying to keep up with the narrative as a straightforward whole would be to miss the point of the film’s wonderful chaos. Instead, Anderson’s outrageously overflowing cast – including Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s new sweetheart who happens to be the deputy D.A., Owen Wilson as a former heroin addict and surf-rock sax player now working undercover for every side he can befriend, or Benicio del Toro as Doc’s trusted attorney who specifically specializes in maritime law – unfurls amid the potentially-too-hard-too-follow plot with reckless abandon. Like Doc, the audience is forced into keeping up with the film’s radiant drug-buzz pace by remembering a name or a place important to the plot in a hazy sense of cohesion, but before you know it we’re cruising to the next groovy situation for Doc to bumble his way through. Has there ever been a character in the wrong place at the right time more than Phoenix’s Sportello?
As Sportello, Phoenix inhabits a role as far removed as possible from The Master’s volatile and self-destructive Freddie Quell. Here his klutzy private eye is as much an audience surrogate as he is a flighty yet tormented detective figure for the ages. He’s a guy who initially lives joint to joint, and when he finds himself in the company of Waterston’s magnetic damsel in distress (who haunts the picture like a specter in a haunted house), he suddenly finds a good reason to put the drugs down and take notice. The two have serious chemistry in their brief but powerful scenes, which remind viewers that this movie is a love story in the end.
The film is seasoned throughout with both Jonny Greenwood’s fascinating score and musician Joanna Newsom’s effective and elfish narration (in her acting debut) as the character Sortilège. In his collaborations with Anderson so far, Greenwood’s music has usually been an overt complement inextricably linked to the images onscreen. One would be hard pressed to imagine any other music that could suit either the oil-well explosion scene in There Will Be Blood or the lilting melodies in the boat sequences from The Master. Yet Greenwood’s tubular tones in Inherent Vice – reminiscent of the scores of Bernard Hermann or the music from any really good Twilight Zone episode – take a more subdued position that is nevertheless equally compatible among the numerous Neil Young and psychedelic ’60s tunes on the soundtrack. The other prominent timbre, Newsom’s helium-pitched voice of reason, chimes in whenever she wishes to round out the storytelling with stretches taken almost verbatim from Pynchon’s hilariously verbose source text. She also somewhat magically appears throughout alongside Doc as his sort of omnipresent confidant, egging him on to keep digging into the anarchic mystery as if she were his hippie guardian angel. There hasn’t been a better use of narration in quite some time.
Anderson is one of the most celebrated American filmmakers of the past few decades, and Inherent Vice continues his move to a more technically understated style. Whereas the cameras in Boogie Nights and Magnolia weaved through their worlds with a Scorsese-esque hyperactivity, Anderson has since transitioned into a more languid technique, first with the floaty cinematography of There Will Be Blood and then to the stately compositions of The Master. With Inherent Vice, Anderson tends to juxtapose the manic storyline with a gorgeous series of simply framed slow push long takes or close-ups emphasizing faces and expressions, which then escalates into a kind of blissful frenzy when the action calls for it.
There seems to be an appealing sense of impenetrability to PT Anderson’s films, something similar to the way people usually say that you can only begin to understand Stanley Kubrick films ten years after their initial release. Anderson has surely gotten many comparisons to Kubrick in recent years, and they aren’t far off. He has reached a certain similar level of creative autonomy and critical recognition that not many other filmmakers can claim, and continues to make some of the most undeniably engrossing films that render equal amounts of legitimate reactions both for and against them. Inherent Vice is no different, and should rouse healthy conversation on both sides of the argument, but for my money’s worth it’s another excellent chapter in the career of one of the contemporary greats.
The Upside: One of the best filmmakers in the world runs wild with a stacked cast and zany source material to create a neo-noir destined to cause future generations of stoners to quietly exhale and mumble to themselves, “What IS this, man?”
The Downside: The intentionally convoluted plot may lose viewers who elect to give up on the film rather than engage with the hardboiled hilarity.
On the Side: Robert Downey Jr. was initially in talks to play Doc Sportello before Joaquin Phoenix took the role, which makes us wonder what a mid-Marvel-franchise Robert Downey Jr. would have brought to Anderson and Pynchon’s idiosyncratic tale.