Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Reece Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Hong Chau, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Christopher Allen Nelson, Keith Jardine, Martin Dew, Jefferson Mays, Martin Donovan.
“Back when, she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout. Now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all”
Do you know that feeling of anticipation you get whenever a respected director is releasing a new film? It’s the same feeling that often surrounds Quentin Tarantino’s releases. Well, I also get that feeling when I hear of a new Paul Thomas Anderson project and I’m pretty certain many others do too. That being said, Anderson’s last two introspective films There Will Be Blood and The Master took him much further away from his earlier vibrant works of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and left a number of his fans finding them too onerous. Many may not agree but if he was ever to bridge that gap then Inherent Vice is that bridge.
It’s 1971 in Gordita Beach, California, where private eye, Larry “Doc” Sportello conducts his gumshoe business. He’s approached, out of the blue, by his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Watertson) to search for her, recently vanished, new boyfriend and real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Doc takes on the case but stumbles on a conspiracy that involves a whole host of corrupt characters and soon realises that things are certainly not as they seem.
Let’s just begin by stating that Inherent Vice poses more questions than it actually answers. As a result, the film is downright perplexing – to say the least. The answers that can be found amidst it’s dense cloud of cannabis smog are not easy to find and Anderson is in no mood to walk you through it either. In fact, during the opening scene where Doc is hired by his ex-girlfriend on a possible abduction case she wonders why he’s not overly interested in the details, to which he responds “Don’t worry. Thinking comes later”. And indeed it does come later. So much so, that you begin to wonder if your bewilderment is a direct result of your own drug addled, misspent youth.
What’s very important to note is that the confusion is entirely intentional and a lot of events are possibly taking place in Doc’s head which (as our overhead commentary informs us) are also influenced by the astrological alignments with Jupiter and other planetary systems. Let’s face it, Doc’s a Hippie and if his head wasn’t a little drug infused and mashed up then we’d be reaching our whodunit conclusion a lot easier and smoother – and the film would be a lot more dull as a result. This is what allows the story a creativity. All be it, a creativity that confuses the viewer. One minute he’s watching two women getting it on at a massage parlour where you can purchase a pussy feast for $14.95 and the next he’s, unsuspectingly, batted around the head only to wake up next to a dead body where the local police take an interest. The police interest takes shape in a hilarious turn from Josh Brolin’s Lt. Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen who’s described as an “old hippie-hating mad dog… SAG member, John Wayne walk, flat top of Flintstone proportions and that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations” – and he also seems to have some very expressive sexual urges that manifest in his eating of phallic, chocolate coated bananas.
By now, you’ll have heard about the films mentioned in the same breath as Inherent Vice. It has an almost indecipherable plot like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep; the same offbeat Hippie private-eye from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the same pot-headed, labyrinthine confusion and humour of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. I found the latter to hang heavily over Joaquin Phoenix’s work. At times, it’s hard to forget Jeff Bridges as Phoenix skilfully manages to channel his inner Dude and delivers a nuanced and, surprisingly, funny performance. None of the comparisons are inaccurate, however, as it’s heavily influenced by them all, but Inherent Vice can admirably lay claim to carving it’s own place among them.
Those well versed in Anderson’s work will no doubt recognise his usual traits and ability to capture the times; in Boogie Nights you felt the fun-filled and erratic cocaine vibe of the 70’s/80’s disco scene. In Magnolia, you felt the burden and pain of dysfunctional families and relationships. In There Will Be Blood, you felt the weight of the depression and the greed of an oil baron. In The Master, you were transfixed by the cult and it’s charismatic leader and here, in Inherent Vice, you feel the hazy marijuana comforting your head, making it lazy and hard to process even the smallest detail. Anderson himself, knew about the complexity of Thomas Pynchon’s 384 page novel (of which he personally, and painstakingly, deciphered and adapted) and even worried that it would be criticised as “Incoherent Vice“. There are numerous characters introduced, making it hard to work out who’s who and plot strands drift off and go up in smoke quicker than Doc’s joints. On a first viewing it can look like a mess but Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright summed it up nicely by calling it “Inherent Twice” as after reflection and a (very much required) second viewing, Inherent Vice, is a wonderful piece of work. In all honesty, it would take quite a number of viewings to fully comprehend it and even then you’ll realise that some plot strands are intended to be pointless. There’s a level of surrealism in many scenes that it only reinforces our “patchouli fart” perception of events. All before Anderson abandons the sharp humour for a most intense and explosive denouement that’s very impressively handled.
It’s hard to talk about the plot of the film as a) it would delve into spoiler territory and b) it’s just too fuckin’ hard to talk about in the first place, but there are so many positives from this film that’s it’s disappointing to hear that many have chosen to judge it too soon. Whether it be “Incoherent Vice” or “Inherent Twice” is entirely up to the viewer. I can side, somewhat, with the former but absolutely agree with the latter. If the film can be described in two words I’d use the words of Doc Sportello himself… “Right On!”
Trivia: This film’s cast features show-biz connections that are inherently vice-like in their twining, including: the brother of the late River Phoenix, the brother of Luke Wilson, the brother of Julia Roberts, the sister of Kristin Scott Thomas, the daughter of Sam Waterston, the son of James Brolin, the daughter of Elaine May (Jeannie Berlin ), the wife of Andy Samberg (Joanna Newsom), and the partner of Paul Thomas Anderson (Maya Rudolph ).