Alibi V.24 No.3 • Jan 15-21, 2015 

Film Review

Inherent Vice

Trippy mystery gets lost (albeit pleasantly) in a fog of drugs and weirdness

“Why did you change your name from Leaf Phoenix? Leaf Phoenix was awewome. ... What’s the matter, Leaf?”
“Why did you change your name from Leaf Phoenix? Leaf Phoenix was awewome. ... What’s the matter, Leaf?”

Inherent Vice

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin

Thomas Pynchon is one of those reclusive, cult authors who gets name-dropped a lot more than he gets read cover-to-cover. His earliest postmodern novels (V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow) have been touchstones of college lit since the early ’60s. Until now, however, no one’s been foolish enough to try to translate any of his works to film. But Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t your ordinary fool.

Over the years Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) has developed an affinity for sprawling Southern California sagas. He’s also won some Oscars. So it is with a certain “OK, let’s give this thing a shot!” comfort that we can approach his drug-induced adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice.

Despite Pynchon’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink literary style, Inherent Vice is pure, sunbaked LA noir. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Pynchon’s protagonist, “psychedelic detective” Larry “Doc” Sportello. Doc is a dope-smoking hippie private eye working out of a beachfront community in 1970-era Los Angeles. On the surface he comes across a bit like “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. But Doc has much more in common with Elliot Gould’s funky Philip Marlowe from Robert Altman’s 1973 take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

Typically, in this sort of thing, the mystery takes a backseat to the bizarro characters our hero stumbles across in his quest. To a certain extent, that’s true here. We get Black Panthers, neo-Nazis, FBI agents, Asian massage parlor workers, undercover musicians, kinky dentists and uptight assistant DAs. However, throughout it all, the sheer complexity of the plot keeps asserting itself.

Despite the fact that he sometimes has to jot down in his notebook whether he is or is not hallucinating, Doc has a pretty good head on his shoulders. He’s actually surprisingly competent at his job. Which is why, when his flower-child ex-girlfriend Shasta (willowy Katherine Waterston from “Boardwalk Empire” and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) shows up on his doorstep looking for help, he’s happy to jump in with both feet.

Seems Shasta has taken up with a big-time LA real estate mogul who’s just gone missing. Was he killed? Kidnapped? Something stranger? Like so many generations of gumshoes before him, Doc can’t resist the siren song of a leggy dame and plunges into the seedy LA underworld looking for answers.

Anderson is clearly attracted to the time period of Pynchon’s novel, and he does an evocative job of nailing the post-Manson paranoia of 1970s Hollywood. Everything is still sunny and groovy, but the hangover of the Vietnam era is starting to kick in. Gone is the flower-power, Summer of Love vibe. In its place is a growing sense of government power, corporate control and white privilege.

Typically, in this sort of thing, the mystery takes a backseat to the bizarro characters our hero stumbles across in his quest. To a certain extent, that’s true here. We get Black Panthers, neo-Nazis, FBI agents, Asian massage parlor workers, undercover musicians, kinky dentists and uptight assistant DAs. However, throughout it all, the sheer complexity of the plot keeps asserting itself. The central mystery has something to do with the “Golden Fang”—which is either a famous yacht, a drug smuggling gang from the far east or a tax shelter for dentists. Or possibly all three. Inherent Vice is a funny trip, but it plays the humor pretty close to the vest. Obviously, there’s a darker, more serious story hovering in the wings. Taking more than a few cues from Chinatown, Inherent Vice sets up a mystery that more or less implicates the entire Los Angeles power structure. What’s most interesting, perhaps, is that the film locates the moment when America’s villains went from being ethnic gangsters with guns to one percenters with friends in high places. It’s no longer about breaking laws and making money; it’s about enforcing laws and making money—stamping out those who mess with the status quo. Inherent Vice is one of those “big conspiracy” mysteries that the characters don’t really solve, they merely survive by the skin of their teeth.

There is something exquisite about this dense, dank, multilayered stoner mystery. But it’s not going to be everybody’s bag, if you know what I mean. Connecting the dots is hard work.

Big, brash, sprawling, decidedly oddball and comprehensible in fits and starts, this shaggy dog story gets most of its rhythm from lead actor Joaquin Phoenix. Mysteriously method-heavy Phoenix melts perfectly into this weird role. Mumbling and twitching his way though the case, he’s the center of anesthetized attention. Most actors drop in and out as the mood strikes, floating on the Santa Ana winds as it were, but Phoenix does get a decent amount of one-on-one time with Josh Brolin. He plays hippie-hating cop extraordinaire “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, the square-jawed LAPD officer dogging Doc’s every step. Their dysfunctional buddy cop relationship is one of the film’s comic highlights. (Bigfoot seems to beat up Doc partially out of anger and frustration—but partially just for the exercise.)

There is something exquisite about this dense, dank, multilayered stoner mystery. But it’s not going to be everybody’s bag, if you know what I mean. Connecting the dots is hard work. (Then again, The Big Sleep was kind of a head-scratcher too.) At times the sense of humor seems a little too muted. (Hey, Pynchon went to the trouble of giving characters names like “Dr. Threeply” and “Sauncho Smilax, Esq.”—surely he meant for them to be funny.) And at nearly two and a half hours, there are a few too many diversions along the way. If you’re a fan of Anderson, or if you’ve actually read Pynchon, however, this long, strange trip is probably worth rolling around in your head for a while.