Inherent Vice is a trip.
With its labyrinthine plot, never-ending collection of mysterious characters and befuddling ambiguity, it is safe to say this will be a trip not enjoyed by everyone.
Paul Thomas Anderson, one of modern hollywood’s greatest auteurs, has once again created an admirable motion picture which is guaranteed to polarise and, to an extent, alienate a majority of viewers who demand clarity and coherence as their minimum requirement in a cinematic experience. In spite of that, it cannot be panned as a flop.
While it may not boast the brooding brilliance of There Will Be Blood, the breathtaking ambition of Magnolia, or the instantly accessible storytelling of Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice still provides ample moments of hilarity and mesmeric, marijuana-drenched mystery to appease the serious fans of Anderson. Although it becomes increasingly obvious why the film has caused hundreds of walkouts in the brief spell since its release, the film has a seductive and free-wheeling quality to it that washes over you for the vast majority of its 149 minute runtime.
The film follows Doc Sportello (Phoenix), a bleary-eyed and doobie-blazing private investigator, living in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Doc is visited by a former flame, the alluring hippie-chick Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston), who is now romantically involved with billionaire property tycoon, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Shasta asks for Doc’s help to prevent Wolfman’s wife and her “spiritual coach” lover from committing Mickey to an insane asylum.
However, there is more in store for Doc. In a separate investigation, Doc is hired by Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), an ex-heroin junkie with fake choppers, to find her husband, Coy, portrayed with typical charming poise by Owen Wilson. Before long, Doc travels down a hazy road, leading him to mysterious massage parlours, boats stocked with heroin and acquaints, among others, foggy dopers, police informants, sex-hungry dentists and swastika-adorning man-beasts.
While the multi-faceted myriad of characters are central to to the enjoyment, perhaps one of the film’s most instantly recognisable triumphs is its eclectic soundtrack. Starting with the avant-garde rock vibes of Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ to the idyllic folksy melodies of Neil Young’s ‘Journey Through The Past’ and ‘Harvest’, Anderson’s music picks offer a pleasurable and whimsical window into the happier side of the era.
Towering above the litany of other memorable characters in the film, Josh Brolin’s Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen represents the film’s most enduring personality. Bigfoot, sporting a razor-sharp buzz-cut, sets out on a hippy-hating collision-course with Doc as the mismatched pair delve deeper into investigating the disappearances of Wolfman and Hepworth. Brolin is excellent as the chocolate-banana-munching cop who forms an uneasy alliance with Doc as they collectively uncover a sprawling network of conspiracies, giving rise to themes of capitalism, inequality, communist-induced paranoia and the undeniable yet often hilarious downsides to a heavy consumption of cannabis.
The film has been called a faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name but this only serves to drive the film into borderline realms of incomprehensibility. Pynchon’s writing is translated onto the screen by Joanna Newsom’s Sortilége, the free-wheeling astrologer who often represents the clear-sighted corner of Doc’s chemically-impaired consciousness. Although she guides the viewer through the erratic storyline, we are never given true clarity and leave with more questions than answers.
Pynchon has never been adapted to the screen before and for good reason-his mind-boggling bibliography includes Gravity’s Rainbow, easily one of the most frustratingly complex novels ever written- so Anderson can be commended for attempting to take it on. Indeed, there are not many directors working today that would adapt a Pynchonian work into a reasonable state of credibility. However, despite a consistent delivery of laughs and a cloak of intrigue that keeps the film coasting along with reasonable interest, Anderson can’t quite pull it all together into a satisfying conclusion.
Channelling Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye with a drop of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Inherent Vice provides a kaleidoscopic nostalgic trip back to 1970, when Richard Nixon’s presidency was floundering, the threat of Communism penetrated the minds of every American federal agent and the free-loving, peace-preaching hippydom was beginning to falter, which will delight those yearning for a light-hearted stoner-yarn, but will baffle and disenchant cinema-goers familiar with Anderson’s outstanding body of work who expected more of the thrilling storytelling and masterful direction that made him a critical darling since the late 90s.
3 out of 5 nerds