Inherent Vice

March 14, 2015
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Inherent Vice' (2014)
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Inherent Vice' (2014)

Anyone who complains that the plot of Inherent Vice is confusing has obviously never read a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Confusion, or rather paranoia, is the standard condition of most of Pynchon’s characters, and perhaps readers, – which may explain why Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is the first attempt to bring this elusive author’s work to the screen.

There are excisions and simplifications, but the narrative follows Pynchon’s own multilayered plot, with much of the dialogue being lifted word-for-word from the book.

Inherent Vice is Raymond Chandler for the era of Flower Power. In Los Angeles, 1970, the idealistic moment of Hippiedom has degenerated into a blur of drugs, rock music, mysticism and conspiracy theories. Charles Manson is on everyone’s minds, and long-haired peaceniks are viewed as potential killers. The Philip Marlowe character is Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a dope-smoking private dick whose favoured one-word response to most propositions is “Groovy!” At the beginning of the film a glazed-eyed Doc attempts to give himself an Afro.

The femme fatale is Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who shows up unexpectedly one day to talk about her lover, the property developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who has disappeared. Shasta would like Doc to locate Mickey. Groovy! It appears that Mickey got mixed up with group of neo-Nazis called the Aryan Brotherhood and a mysterious entity called The Golden Fang. This is an historic boat moored off the beach, but it may also be a sinister Asian drugs cartel, or a secret society of rich dentists. Are you starting to get the picture?

But hey, another client has appeared – Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), a black power militant just out of prison, who wants Doc to contact a former cellmate – an Aryan Brotherhood member named Glen Charlock.

Meanwhile, a third client asks Doc to locate her husband, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a junky sax player who is supposedly dead but might be alive. When Doc finds Coy, which doesn’t prove too difficult, he discovers another connection with a group named Vigilant California, and the ubiquitous Golden Fang. “Wow,” thinks Doc. “All these threads are coming together.”

By this stage, Shasta has joined the missing persons list, and Doc is on a personal quest to find his lost love, who was last spotted on board a certain boat.

It is a storyline that uncannily duplicates the experience of trying to put together a home entertainment system from scratch. In this case, one doesn’t have the option of getting in an electrician to connect the cables.

To further complicate matters, Doc is being shadowed by his old adversary, Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who wavers between trying to convict him on a trumped-up charge or employ him as a snitch. Bigfoot is such a mass of contradictions I won’t attempt an in-depth description. Then there is Doc’s current girlfriend, Penny (Reese Witherspoon), a lawyer who works in the DA’s office, who appears to have delivered him into the hands of the FBI. But that’s cool.

In order to negotiate this bewildering cast of characters and intertwined sub-plots, it probably helps to be stoned, as Doc is throughout the film. There has already been much speculation as to whether Joaquin Phoenix prepared for the role by emulating Doc’s habits. If not, Phoenix takes method acting to a new high (sorry!), exercising precision control over his pupils. Many viewers will be mesmerised by his mutton-chop whiskers, grown in emulation of Neil Young, who also features prominently on the soundtrack.

Anderson is a director with a reputation for taking chances. With Inherent Vice, the major risk was to attempt this project in the first place. He has resisted the temptation to turn the entire adventure into a psychedelic nostalgia trip, perhaps having once sat through a movie by Ken Russell or Alejandro Jodorowsky. Yet by sticking so closely to the book, he seems almost timid. It’s probably a case of damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don’t. It also suggests the dangers of adapting an author’s work when you are a fan.

Inherent Vice is too slick, too well produced to be a cult movie, but too weird to enjoy mainstream approval. It’s undeniably nostalgic for the pre-Manson 1960s, but also demonstrates what a freakshow LA was in those days. The cinematography has a dark and shabby feel, which seems perfectly suited to the Nixon era.

This is a long movie that can’t be recommended unconditionally. There are wonderful moments, but other times the story drops anchor and the dialogue meanders. Ultimately it suggests one can’t make a brilliant film about a bunch of people who are doped to the gills, if only because the miraculous wisdom conferred by pot sounds like “um, errr..” to everyone else. On the other hand, for card-carrying members of the Marijuana Party, get ready for the time of your life.

Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson, from a novel by Thomas Pynchon,
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Hong Chau, Eric Roberts
USA, rated MA15+, 148 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14th March, 2015.