Inherent Vice (2014)
Sometimes life hits you with a bunch of complicated shit when all you really want to do is spin a Neil Young record and roll another number. Inherent Vice is a film about that feeling. It’s about other things, too: capitalism, counterculture, California. It’s also about how much Paul Thomas Anderson, the film’s director, loves convoluted film noir plots, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, and the prose of Thomas Pynchon. Inherent Vice throws a lot at you in 148 minutes. It’s a chaotic noir odyssey – all comic mayhem and mournful weirdness. But really it remains a simple thing: the story of a man (and a decade, the ’60s) whose good times get interrupted by larger forces.
It’s the latest fascinatingly strange, sublimely cinematic look at a moment of American history as rendered by Paul Thomas Anderson.
The first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice tells its story of a nation in flux through Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a Southern California stoner and half-assed private eye. The film opens as Doc gets a visit from Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), a meaningful ex from his past. Shasta tells of her current affair with Mickey Wolfmann, a real estate goliath so big even Doc knows his name. Wolfmann’s wife has her own illicit lover, and together the two have planned to have Mickey thrown into one of California’s recently privatized “loony bins.”
Inherent Vice throws a lot at you in 148 minutes. It’s a chaotic noir odyssey – all comic mayhem and mournful weirdness.
Shasta asks for Doc’s help. She loves Wolfmann, despite the cartoonishly corporate exterior. Doc doesn’t know what he wants, but he mumbles into agreement. She leaves his apartment, and so begins Doc’s deep-dive into the subversive and anti-subversive fringe groups of 1970s Los Angeles.
Inherent Vice returns Anderson to his fascination with the countercultures and micro-communities of American life. Like Boogie Nights and The Master before it, Inherent Vice defines a specific moment in our history through its fringe elements. Those films showed us 1970s, ’80s, and postwar America from the outsiders’ vantage point of porn stars, religious cults, and one very shell-shocked war veteran (never forget Freddie Quell). The hedonists and religious zealots of those films both retreated from mainstream society to create enclaves. Anderson’s cinema explores these fringe figures in search of what they say about the societies that gave birth to them and human beings in general.
He takes this approach to something of an extreme in Inherent Vice. The film renders early-’70s California as a funhouse of heroin addicts and stoners, neo Nazis and Black Panthers, radicals and runaways, hookers and coked-up dentists. Each outsider hints at the existence of a larger subculture (i.e. Owen Wilson’s “surf-sax” movement, of which we sadly never get a taste). What bonds them is their tension with the tools of the status quo: police officers, FBI agents, real estate developers, lawyers, and the moneyed interests who seek to privatize and control American life. Inherent Vice is about the friction between these groups – the vagabond weirdos and the brutal enforcers and benefactors of the capitalist system.
The film uses the plot mechanics of a wildly incomprehensible film noir to mimic the daze and mood swings of a drug trip.
The film uses the plot mechanics of a wildly incomprehensible film noir to mimic the daze and mood swings of a drug trip. Inherent Vice goes by like a party where you showed up too high to function; you don’t remember all the faces and names, but you remember enough to know you had a good time. Noir films like The Big Sleep operate on this assumption; they hit you with more reveals and double-crossings than they know you can handle. Vice takes that narrative trick and uses it to capture the paranoia and delirium of prolonged drug use. The Big Lebowski did the same thing – both films use The Big Sleep as a blueprint – but to very different ends. Anderson approaches the stoner noir mold from a more anarchic and melancholic angle. His is a long goodbye to the rough-edged wild years of the 1960s in the era of President Nixon and Governor Reagan.
Though not the assault of slapstick pratfalls and dopey hijinks promised by its trailer, Inherent Vice does rank among the director’s funniest films. The sheer number of jokes, visual and verbal, certainly surpasses anything Anderson has attempted before. The film packs its scenes with stray, two-second gags, much of it verbal wordplay I suspect comes from the novel. We get mid-scene cutaway shots of Doc’s hands scribbling things like “not hallucinating” as he tries to keep himself calm, a mental health facility with the motto “Straight Is Hip,” a brothel really pushing its “pussy eater’s special” on its signage. The bigger set pieces deliver, as do the throwaway bits. A standout scene with a coke-crazed Martin Short brings Anderson back to the marvelously indulgent style he mastered with Boogie Nights. The man has a way with chronicling the erratic rampages of drunks, coke addicts, and stoners.
Inherent Vice registers on an emotional level as well. Its lament of American plutocracy is genuine, even if it paints its corporate overlords and government bureaucrats – and the cops and lawyers who protect them – with a comically broad brush. The film doesn’t take the death of the ’60s as a joke, even if it finds plenty of absurdist humor in the telling of its death. Doc’s feelings for Shasta Fay, his ex, echo that sense of longing for a time long gone. Anderson crafts at least two superb sequences here: a wistful flashback involving a Ouija board, weed, and a rainy afternoon set to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past,” and a sex scene that manages to convey all the gnarled emotions of hooking up with an ex. Amid broad satire and a battery of low-brow gags, Inherent Vice somehow makes room for an affecting look at past love (the Neil Young songs help).
Anderson’s recent films have shared a shapelessness that makes them tough to unlock on first viewing. Many, myself included, made fools of themselves in 2012 by dismissing The Master, a film of such gobsmacking visual accomplishment and ferocious performances. After one watch, however, Inherent Vice does seem like one of Anderson’s less distinctive achievements. He made the film quite quickly, by his standards, and he shows a devotion to Pynchon’s prose that comes at the expense of his skills as a writer and visual stylist. I keep thinking of that minutes-long slow zoom on Doc and Coy (Owen Wilson) as they mumble conspiratorially at a hippie party. During a recent press conference, Anderson said he opted for a single take in this scene because the pages of stylized, Pynchon-esque dialogue called for it. The moment hits on most of my initial faults with Inherent Vice: It lacks the aesthetic grandeur of all his features since Boogie Nights, and it feels too often propelled by the straightforward desire to bring Pynchon’s word to the screen.
The less inspired moments don’t dull my desire to revisit Inherent Vice, to relish in its umpteen tones and influences. At its best, the film captures the restless, imperfect quality of a Neil Young record like Tonight’s the Night. Perhaps, in time, like that album, the flubbed notes and tonal shifts will become part of its unique charm.
Inherent Vice goes by like a party where you showed up too high to function; you don’t remember all the faces and names, but you remember enough to know you had a good time.