Inherent Vice


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Inherent Vice
"This is the tail end of the good times, Doc and his cohort seem as though they are fading out."

Courtesy of a charity screening by The Prince Charles Cinema, a select few were able to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film ahead of its UK January release. Each Anderson film always seems so different from the previous one, even though some connecting threads run through his filmography: many of his works deal with father-son type relationships, and all seem to be some kind of meditation on a period or aspect of modern America. So with Inherent Vice, in contrast to the discursive, intense study of post-WWII malaise and soul-searching of The Master, we get a comic-noir LA romp that feels one part Big Lebowski, one part American Hustle plus one part Chinatown for good measure.

Adapting Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Anderson’s film is set in the 1970s, in a sun-drenched LA where not everyone has woken up from the substance-enhanced partying of the 1960s even if rest of the country is happily moving towards the looming era of Reagan. One of those people still fighting off the hangover and clearly not keen on the party being over is Private Detective Larry “Doc” Sportello, played here by Joaquin Phoenix with a ratty clothing line, crazy hair and a set of mutton chops that make him look like the less effective brother of X-Men’s Wolverine. Regularly clouded in dope smoke and rarely moving faster than a sedated tortoise, the mumbling Sportello (this is not a film for those who struggle with mumbled dialogue) feels like one of the good guys but is probably not the sharpest pencil in the box when it to comes to navigating a thorny detective mystery.

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But a right old mystery is what Sportello is landed in, when his sometime lover and sometime PI partner Shasta (Katherine Waterston) reveals to him one woozy night that she is caught up with property magnate Mickey Wolfmann and a scam by his wife to pack him off to an insane asylum. Then Shasta mysteriously vanishes along with Wolfmann. Sportello gets on the case, but right from the off he is assaulted on all sides by red herrings, randy housewives and raging cops that take his investigation, if you can call it that, in all kinds of loopy directions.

In short order, Doc is warned by Black Panther contact Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) that Wolfmann is caught up with White Power neo-Nazi gangs and that there is real danger coming. Sportello also has to deal with his door and ribcage being frequently caved in by local LAPD hardass ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who also moonlights as a movie extra and seems to have his own angle on the Wolfmann disappearance (along with the most aggressive ordering of Japanese pancake that it is possible to imagine - “MOTTO PANUKEIKU!”). Doc’s sort-of lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) tempts him with the possibility that a mysterious lavish yacht hovering off the coast might be connected to all this via a shady organisation called “The Golden Fang”- which may be a drug cartel, or alternatively (or at the same time) might be a group of dentists pooling their funds for tax purposes. And then there is the morose heroin junkie bassist–turned-undercover agent (Owen Wilson) who seems to be playing all sides, and who pleads with Sportello to help him get out of his jam.

Coke gets snorted, guns get fired, and a lot of dope gets smoked. As with Chinatown, this is a subverted detective story played out in the sunlight rather than the shadows, and as with the Big Lebowski, there is a sense that this investigation isn’t about anything much at all, where the detective doesn’t so much as uncover clues as knock into them. With such a large cast of characters engaging in madcap meddlings, it feels a little like a Wes Anderson film too. In fact, given Doc’s heavy consumption of the good leaf, it is entirely possible he is imagining half of the bonkers activity going on in front of him, such as Bigfoot grabbing and eating his entire weed supply right in front of him, cigarette paper and all. After all, Doc does write “PARANOIA ALERT” in his notebook at one point.

Anderson described the feeling of adapting Pynchon’s book as “fun... like taking your dad’s car for a ride,” and “like somebody dumped bags of gold in front of me and I can only take so much with me”; Brolin called the shoot “just absolute fucking chaos every day”. By and large, hilary and hijinks are indeed the order of the day in Inherent Vice with a woozy, new-agey narration by Joanna Newsom adding to the dreamy, languid and baked mood. There are plenty of colorful cameos and some side-splittingly funny moments: witness Phoenix’s one-second scream when confronted with a polaroid of a scary baby. The grainy filmstock and 1970s window dressing are more than pleasing to the eye.

But there is also a more serious and sad subtext that can be read. This is the tail end of the good times, Doc and his cohort seem as though they are fading out. Just as The Master explored the damage caused to a generation who were packed off to fight in WWII and then were left wandering to find their part of America when they came home, Inherent Vice feels like a lament (with some critique) for those who tried the same search in the 1960s and were maybe doomed from the start to have Charles Manson end up unintentionally as their symbol. The dream is as out of reach for the incoherent Sportello as his one-time lover Shasta seems to be. This is a very long, sprawling film that will undoubtedly not be for all; it is certainly not the most accessible of Anderson’s films and it is not even the funniest. But it’s a unique ride, man.

Reviewed on: 02 Jan 2015
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Inherent Vice packshot
A drug-fuelled detective investigates the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend.
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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon

Starring: Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Sasha Pieterse, Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Michael K. Williams, Maya Rudolph, Wilson Bethel, Jillian Bell, Martin Short, Anders Holm, Martin Donovan

Year: 2014

Runtime: 148 minutes

Country: US

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