The complicated, labyrinthine plot of Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature film, coupled with the muffled delivery of some of its actors, is proving a little too much for some cinemagoers: newspapers in the UK, at least, have reported that audience members are ducking out before the end of the movie and it’s certainly not difficult to understand why some people – perhaps frustrated at being made to feel obtuse by the story – are doing so. This adaptation, like Thomas Pynchon’s original novel, is wilfully difficult – though not impossible – to follow: set in LA at the turn of the 1970s, there’s a wealth of information to take in (characters both seen and unseen, threads, places, anecdotes, crossed lines, coincidences, life, death, jellyfish croquettes) and much of it is casually picked up, dropped and subsequently forgotten about; only at the end is it really possible to take stock and figure out what has, and what hasn’t, been particularly relevant in this shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. Plenty of people dislike being left behind by fast-moving or barely-understandable plots and their criticisms are entirely valid, despite the sneering ‘oh-you-just-don’t-get-it’ tone of several prominent media voices; while it seems that you need to be able to sit back, relax and go with the film to enjoy it, not everyone finds that easy to do in practice, and it’s a shame that Anderson’s latest is prompting strong enough feelings in some to cause walkouts after paying for a seat.
Those able to accept Inherent Vice for what it is – a deliberately convoluted and confusing semi-comic neo-noir filtered through a fuzzy, druggy haze – will likely have a good time. Anderson has made a visually-arresting film that fuses elements of The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski, The Maltese Falcon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Long Goodbye, Night Moves (the 1975 film) and Chinatown, among others, though whether it’s actually the equal of any of those titles is a moot point. It is, however, better than Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, from which Joaquin Phoenix cribs a number of Johnny Depp’s spaced-out Thompsonisms for his portrayal of private eye Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello.
The Long Goodbye, in which Robert Altman took an early 1950s Chandler / Marlowe story and set it twenty years later, is probably the nearest comparable film; Altman has long been Anderson’s most obvious influence, and the younger director even acted as a standby for the veteran before he passed away, during the filming of A Prairie Home Companion. You could say that Inherent Vice is Anderson’s most overtly Altman-esque film since Magnolia, and it represents a return to the earlier LA-based, ensemble-featuring work of his career; in fact it’s a surprise that a hysterical Luis Guzmán is absent from the cast.
Joaquin Phoenix is firmly on the way to becoming an Anderson regular himself, and he’s enjoyable to watch as the dope-smoking hippy PI, a resident of the fictional suburb of Gordita Beach. Sportello is visited by ex-girlfriend (or ‘ex-old’ in the parlance of the times) Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks her former beau to investigate an imminent kidnapping plot involving her current lover, real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts); Wolfmann and Hepworth both subsequently disappear. Two other people – Michael K. Williams’ Black Guerrilla Family member Tariq Khalil and Jena Malone’s ex-junkie Hope Harlingen – independently come to Doc at the same time asking for help with, as it transpires, their own coincidentally-related cases. This sets the wheels of the often baffling plot in motion, embracing such creations along the way as Josh Brolin’s hippy-hating detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, Owen Wilson’s musician-turned-stool pigeon Coy Harlingen, Reese Witherspoon’s Deputy DA (and Doc’s ‘new-old’) Penny Kimball, Hong Chau’s helpful prostitute Jade and many, many more. Following their often-cryptic guidance, Doc ambles into an expanding world of cults, bikers, shadowy crime syndicates and dentists, completely lost in his own story, wandering from one scenario and person to the next without much of a clue as to what is happening.
Like Pynchon’s book, Anderson’s film successfully mines the confusing nature of the plot, and the bafflement of the stoned protagonist, for laughs. The likeable Doc’s tendency to make vague notes during his investigations becomes a running joke, for example, with hastily-scribbled entries like ‘Not hallucinating!’ and ‘something Spanish’ offering little in the way of illumination for detective or audience. He regularly appears wandering about in dense fog or sitting in / under a cloud of smoke, and his lack of familiarity with certain surroundings often leaves him sporting an amusingly-perplexed look, desperate for a point of reference. Sportello’s confusion is roughly equal to our own, although tragically for Doc he can’t walk out of the story or out of the cinema in frustration, and those of us in the audience must face the usual frustrations found when looking to stoners for coherence.
In the film the ideas of sudden displacement, or of being lost, are enhanced by the changing landscape of LA, with the appearance of new property developments further messing with Doc’s drug-addled mind. In one sequence Anderson shows a flashback of Doc and Shasta as they attempt to score some weed before Doc, back in the present, visits the same site while following a clue. He finds a new, turd-shaped development where previously there was nothing and examines it as if he has just spotted a silver unicorn in an Adidas tracksuit settling down with a hookah. The physical make-up of Doc’s town is altering, and it’s seemingly hard for him to handle, but that’s not the only change taking place in the City of Angels: the prevalence of the hippie lifestyle he clings to is slowly being replaced by a new wave of self-interest and commercial focus as the Nixon era begins in earnest. Coke is taking over from weed and acid as the drug-du-jour, and the Hell’s Angels and the Manson Family have become the dominant cultural references, in stark contrast to the positivity associated with the Summer of Love and Woodstock. There’s even a brief tableau vivant in which Wilson (front and centre in the Jesus position) and various cult-y musicians and hangers-on align at a table for what appears to be their own Last Supper, which is fun but ultimately an example of PTA ramming the point home with unnecessary force. Doc’s people are still visible, still existing, but they’re losing the short battle with conservative, capitalist America and its authoritative powers, a motif typified by the detective’s recurring and often painful run-ins with straight-laced cops like Bjornsen and FBI agents Borderline (Timothy Simons) and Flatweed (Sam Jaeger).
Still, all the best PIs operate with the police at arm’s length, and for all his fall-guy fuzziness Pynchon’s creation is no dipshit; he may be shambling but he regularly gets the better of those who underestimate him, including the authorities, though Anderson smartly leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether it’s primarily due to luck or intelligence. Like his equally-stoned anti-hero counterpart in The Big Lebowski, things just seem to work out for Doc eventually, but one of the delights of watching the film comes from seeing the brief ‘eureka!’ moments in which Phoenix’s character suddenly pieces together a small part of the impossible jigsaw, even though the actual puzzle seems to get bigger and bigger as the story progresses. Also, like The Dude, he’s a well-intentioned, relatively peaceful guy who would probably rather be at home smoking a joint than negotiating his way through a world populated by psychopaths; it’s impossible not to root for Doc given this underdog scenario, but Phoenix’s charm makes doubly sure that the audience is on the main character’s side.
As per Pynchon’s novel it’s a shame that several of the superbly-monikered friends and foes Doc knows or meets along the way are sidelined so quickly. Williams, Witherspoon and Malone do not receive much screen time after their initial introductions, while Benecio del Toro (playing lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq, another riff on Fear And Loathing) and Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s partner, playing Doc’s receptionist Petunia) suffer a similar fate, even though the sacrifice of characters and the introduction of more faces is somewhat necessary to ensure the complicated nature of the plot. I do wonder whether it would have been better to use a few unknown or less-familiar actors in some of these smaller roles; none of the big names mentioned above actually enhance the picture in any meaningful way, as only Brolin, Phoenix and Waterston are around long enough to show off their chops. Two of the more interesting comic performances – Martin Short’s drugged-up dentist Rudy Blatnoyd and Martin Donovan’s shady businessman Crocker Fenway – leave lasting impressions despite their brevity, but that’s due to some extreme scenery-chewing. At least the revolving door approach allows for a large number of lowlifes, crazies, tycoons and femme fatales to pass through Doc’s world, something of a prerequisite for any work that aims to echo the fast-paced investigations of Spade and Marlowe.
Anderson’s greatest success – given that any praise for the characters and dialogue should really be directed towards Pynchon – is in overseeing the film’s visual style. Inherent Vice is beautiful to look at, with lush, rich colours enhanced by the meticulous work of the lighting crew and captured thanks to Anderson’s choice of shots and the technical prowess of his regular DoP Robert Elswit. The denim blues are deep, the greens and reds vibrant, while the sunny yellows are evocative of a carefree Laurel Canyon where singer-songwriters could be found on every street corner and residents floated on down to Sunset Boulevard. The movie was shot on 35mm film, further recalling the ‘feel’ of the period, and Anderson’s commitment to the medium in the face of the digital takeover is commendable given the results he has achieved. Inherent Vice even received its UK premiere at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, a gem of a venue that remains dedicated to showing 35mm prints, and one normally playing second fiddle to the domineering big chain neighbours of Leicester Square.
Though I prefer most of Anderson’s previous work, including his last two films, it’s something of a relief that the director has served up some lighter fayre after the double whammy of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Inherent Vice feels more in step with his earlier LA-based movies, but those hints in the Anderson-cut trailer that suggested a re-tooling of the first half of Boogie Nights or even the Coen’s Lebowski are wide of the mark. The film is dialogue-heavy, the scenes are generally long, the tone is different to anything he has done before and you’ll probably smirk more than laugh.
Anderson’s still more interested in making films that concentrate on men, first and foremost, and although this is an adaptation of an existing novel it’s a shame to see the female characters (and therefore female actors) generally get short shrift yet again. After writing interesting parts for Amy Adams and Emily Watson in recent years it’s disappointing that this story represents a step back in the wrong direction with its one-dimensional nympho maid and sex-mad, skimpy-clad receptionists. The preference for women prancing around wearing cut-offs, hot pants, bikinis or underwear is arguably more understandable – given the setting – than in many other exploitative films, but there’s certainly a predictable, predominant ‘Hollywood starlet’ look here, and I long for a duck walk or a pot belly or a lazy eye or even a fleeting glimpse of the kind of people who actually populate a large portion of this world. Michelle Sinclair, better known as the pornstar Belladonna, pops up in one scene, and her character’s sum total contribution is to announce that she likes having threesomes before disappearing forever. (PTA’s obsession with the porn industry, widely attributed to be a by-product of his upbringing in the Valley, continues unabated; not that I think pornstars are lepers who shouldn’t be let anywhere near ‘serious’ movie sets, or anything, it’s just…did you really need to cast a pornstar in that role?) I guess the fact that Jena Malone’s character has false teeth represents something of a triumph for all aspiring actresses that don’t fit into some kind of Hollywood casting agent’s narrow field. Don’t despair sisters! Keep the dream alive! There’s the eternal hope of a tiny, tiny part in a future Paul Thomas Anderson movie! As long as your legs are good enough, of course.
Just as troubling is the treatment of Shasta, the most prominent female character, who is even ‘punished’ by Doc with sex (although in defence of Pynchon and Anderson it is something that she instigates and wants). She’s introduced in a meekly deferential way when she re-visits her old male lover in order to ask for help, and her key scene, walking with Doc along the beach, sees her equating herself with damaged goods from a cargo ship; she is apparently the ‘inherent vice’ of the title, a walking symbol of the deterioration that the story is concerned with. Even the most likeable male character here can’t be bothered to disagree with her or attempt to raise her self-esteem.
I find Pynchon’s work a bit of a struggle to get through, which no-one ever admits, but ultimately it’s worth the effort. The same applies to Anderson’s latest: I enjoy his films a lot, and I enjoyed this one a lot, but a certain amount of steely resilience is required and I imagine a native American ear for the speedy dialogue and internationally-obscure cultural references would probably help, too; either that or you need to match Doc joint-for-joint. So: those who like their plots and their actors crystal clear are obviously best advised to give it a miss, but if you’re still up for it you’ll find a flawed-but-entertainingly absurd piece that slots nicely into the director’s career and looks fantastic. It’s kinda fun to be all-at-sea with Doc and Inherent Vice is a trip; ultimately how can you resist a film with character names like ‘Japonica Fenway’, ‘Buddy Tubeside’, ‘Riggs Warbling’ and ‘Puck Beaverton’?
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Thomas Pynchon
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benecio Del Toro, Hong Chau, Joanna Newsom, Jena Malone
Running Time: 148 minutes