Inherent Vice (2014) drops its audience down the rabbit hole that was the 1970’s and has them wandering the streets of Los Angeles, lost and looking for answers they most likely will not find. What is most unique and just plain entertaining about this movie is its hallucinogenic imagery, quick dialogue, offbeat comedy and unusual casting. Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance with James Brolin and Martin Short taking a close second place. The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Thomas Pynchon, one of America’s very best and original authors. The film is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who is likewise one of America’s very best and original directors. Both Pynchon and Anderson are artists in the truest sense. Their novels and films respectively are not commercial in any way, shape or form. They are complicated and confrontational. They force the audience/reader to think and come to their own conclusions.
Many, including myself, thought Pynchon novels to be unadaptable for the screen. However, I was surprised to find this pairing to be a match made in heaven. In hindsight it’s not so surprising that their paths crossed with Inherent Vice. Nor is it sheer coincidence that Paul Thomas Anderson chose such a difficult and ambiguous story to adapt for the screen. He is a director who obviously enjoys a challenge. His film choices bear this out from the unconventional love story Punch Drunk Love to the crazy romp Boogie Nights to the pseudo historical dramas The Master and There Will be Blood. His movies are challenging and his style is pretty difficult to pin down. Inherent Vice stays mostly true to the novel. The pacing is just as disjointed and the protagonist, Doc, just as unpredictable. The film also has the same unique sense of place and time that makes the novel so challenging and enticing.
The film follows Doc Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a drug addled private detective, and is narrated by Doc’s friend and spiritual advisor Sortilège (played by the musician, Joanna Newsom). Near the beginning of the film Doc is reunited with an ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) who believes that she is being used in a plot to frame her billionaire boyfriend Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She suspects that it’s actually Wolfmann’s wife who is orchestrating the whole thing. This sounds like standard pulp detective fare but the plot quickly unravels into chaos. The FBI and CIA get involved as well as a mysterious organized crime syndicate called the Golden Fang. The film is full of interesting and eccentric characters such as an overzealous police detective called “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Doc’s lawyer and expert in maritime law, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) and a drug dealing dentist played by Martin Short. The film’s plot is so “all over the place” that it constantly leaves the audience asking more questions than there are available answers. It is the film’s characters and sense of place and time that make it such an extraordinary film. Never mind that it really doesn’t make much sense, you just have to go with it.
The film’s cinematography, sets, clothing and dialogue will undoubtedly take older audience members back to that time period and for those of us who were not alive to experience those days, the film offers us an insightful glimpse inside. Robert Elswit did an excellent job infusing the film with a signature tonality and style. It feels like you are in a neon haze right along with Doc as he follows loose ends, false leads and mysterious characters. Robert Elswit also worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood (2007). The chemistry between the two artists is clear. They are able to share and manifest the same vision for the film and execute it perfectly. This is most certainly not a simple task due to the complicated and visually demanding nature of Anderson’s films.
Even though the setting, time period and characters take center stage that does not mean that the film’s thematic material is unsubstantial, quite the contrary. I do believe that this is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most accessible films because it can be experienced both cerebrally and purely for enjoyment. It can be appreciated as a mere comedic romp or as an insight into a period of history where the cracks in the socio-political foundation of the United States were definitely beginning to show. In a mere two and half hour film, Anderson is able to take the pulse of America during the seventies. The period immediately after World War II was a time of prosperity. Almost everyone had the opportunity to own a home, get a good job, and start a family. As a nation we felt good about ourselves because we had saved the world from the Nazi scourge. The seventies were the hangover America experienced after the party that was the late sixties. The everlasting war in Vietnam cast a dark cloud of unease over a generation and gave birth to an increasingly radicalized counterculture. As the war wore on year after year it took the appearance of a suicide mission more than a fight of good over evil. Were we truly there for the right reasons or were we simply trying to save face? Mistrust and outrage on both sides forced a wedge between the pro-government and anti-government populations. Drugs were easily accessible during this time and law enforcement was playing catch up. Drug use was not a random epidemic but a manifestation of the times. As the film’s narrator states, “American life is something to escape from.”
Inherent Vice depicts the decade’s unease and paranoia perfectly. Doc and his nemesis Bigfoot represent the polar opposites of 70’s society: the dirty hippie and the true-blue establishment type. There is an odd comradery between the two, like brothers who argue and fight but wouldn’t want the other completely out of their life. The movie also presents an interesting representation of the Vietnam War. Like the war, the plot is fraught with contradictions, conspiracies (real and imagined), double-speak, good intentions and bad results. The film, like the war, ends abruptly and without many answers. In Vietnam nothing was accomplished and the soldiers had to return home to an uncaring and often openly hostile America, an America much like Doc must operate in. Owen Wilson’s character describes the Vietnam War as suicidal and says in defense of his occupation as a government paid infiltrator: if your mother was on dope, wouldn’t you try to help her kick it?
Inherent Vice is an American west coast 1970’s fever dream with moments of crystal clear clarity, random absurdity, circuitous conversations, threats and counter threats, bell bottoms, peasant dresses and halter-tops set to a soundtrack of Johnny Greenwood tunes. With Inherent Vice, Anderson offers up another piece of the patchwork quilt that is America.