Inherent Vice

UK Release Date 30th January 2015
Director Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin, Wilson, Del Toro, Brolin
Runtime 146 minutes
Certificate 18
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 31st January 2015

Before we settle down to review Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice I feel compelled to talk about the source from whence it came. I have never read anything by Thomas Pynchon and I’m still not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse in this case. Anderson is usually the creator of his own impressive stories (There Will be Blood very loosely based on Oil by Upton Sinclair) and it has been long been the viewpoint that Thomas Pynchon’s books are largely untranslatable to screen. I put forward as evidence a review by one S James on Amazon of how reading Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s 1974 novel will affect you:

You will get stuff done around the house. That fence panel that needs fixing, that leak in the roof, that room you've been meaning to tidy; once Gravity's Rainbow makes your leisure time harder work than your chores, your normal prevarication routines will be completely turned on their head.’

Well OK then! Inherent Vice is perceived as one of Pynchon’s more accessible works. Again - OK then! Apologies in advance for the long and rambling nature of this review, it was unavoidable given the source material. 

Shambolic stoner and private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello is awoken from a dream by the appearance of alluring ex lover Shaster who unravels a sordid tale. It seems Shaster is in deep with Wolfman, a local property developer and a local unsavoury type called Guy, who want to involve her in a sexually orientated scam for some big money. Shaster is clearly in deep and Doc obviously has some unresolved feelings for her. Shaster goes missing and so our beloved hippy Doc plummets head first down the rabbit hole, down he goes further, into a fiendish tale involving Black Panthers, Nazi Drug lords, Chinese heroin cartels, dodgy dentists, Ouija boards, faked deaths and a cop with a flattop and a serious grudge. All the while Doc has the biggest demons of all to battle – the hippy evils of paranoia and delusions.

One does not go to a Paul Thomas Anderson movie expecting or wanting an easy ride. One goes in with a certain expectations. Expectations of longevity, of originality and of some requirements of mental dexterity. Raining Frogs. Falling pianos. One doesn’t expect to go to an Anderson movie, zone out and come round mildly entertained. Anderson makes you work for it. Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love are two of my favourite films and films I watch over and over again, always enjoying new things about them. Inherent Vice will sit comfortably amongst them although it is perhaps Anderson’s most outright funny but potentially infuriating piece of film making yet. A 50’s style noir set in the heady fug of a 70’s stoner movie with some supernatural leanings thrown in. The narrator (also Doc’s inner monologue and perhaps not a real person) is called Sortilege – meaning: the practice of foretelling the future from a card or other item drawn at random from a collection. This is a time where the Manson family are still heavy and present in everyone’s mind and paranoia runs rife, not just in the stoners. Inherent Vice can’t help draw comparisons to Chinatown, The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep to name a fewSportello has elements of Jeff Spicolli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and probably a whole host of other famous stoners/stoner detectives in movies I haven’t seen. The dialogue is trippy and often very funny, a waitress suggests they have some booze before a big meal by saying ‘you’re gonna want to get good and fucked up before you eat this meal’. Anderson himself describes Inherent Vice as a ‘sweet, dripping aching for the past’. 

Doc is the provider of many, if not all, of the comedic moments, most of which have their roots firmly imbedded in good old-fashioned slapstick. There’s more than a touch of the Marx brothers in Doc’s calamitous meanderings and scrapes. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments. However when Anderson decides to go dark we really go there. A scene between Shaster and Doc with her relaying the reality of her  ‘relationship’ with Wolfman is both sad and unsettling and we see a more aggressive, sexualised side of Doc that was previously hidden beneath the ’happy hippy’ exterior. It’s a scene that trips up the viewer somewhat, momentarily derails the happy train. There are also moments of tremendous sadness. We all know Anderson is skilled at eliciting huge emotional connections from his characters but there is tenderness in unusual places during Inherent Vice. Shaster and Doc’s relationship, which is deliberately confusing and misleading during the film, actually has moments of real raw emotion; quickly followed by some silly slapstick/heavy confusion because that’s how we roll over here on Inherent Vice Avenue!

Joaquin Phoenix is heartbreakingly brilliant as Doc. Much of the physical and situational comedy comes from Phoenix and he portrays Doc with a heart and kindness that makes us more than willing to take this long strange journey with him. His Doc is gentle but savvy and hats off for not making Doc a ridiculous caricature. An easy route to go down with a 70’s hippie private investigator. Phoenix’ Doc is huggable, accident-prone teddy bear of a character but with many more layers than first appearances allow for.

Josh Brolin is hilarious as flat top cop with an attitude and bit part actor Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen who has a penchant for passionately sucking chocolate covered bananas that have more than a passing resemblance to an erect cock. It’s one of the more bizarre visual touches Inherent Vice has to offer. Bigfoot’s constant phone calls with Doc are often hilarious. Martin Short has a fantastic almost-cameo as dodgy, coke sniffing dentist Blatroyd. Katherine Waterson is pitch perfect and stunning as mysterious stoner beauty Shasta, Joanna Newsom is great in her screen debut as mysterious narrator/Doc’s inner monologue Sortilege. Owen Wilson is on great form as enigmatic surfer saxophonist, Coy Harlingen and Jena Malone is great as doper-mum–done-good. Anderson’s partner Maya Rudolph pops up in sweet little turns as the receptionist for the dentist where Doc has an office. Eric Roberts makes a great Wolfman and Benicio Del Toro pops up surely with a nod and wink to his role in Fear and Loathing as Marine Lawyer Sauncho Smilax. Hong Chau is also very funny as mysterious sex worker June who tips off Doc about the mysterious Golden Fang. 

With DP Robert Elswitt, Anderson has created a world where things are that little bit brighter down by the beach where the hippies and psychedelic drugs are. Anderson had some damaged film stock in his garage and when they played it back the footage looked milky and broken down. Anderson and Elswitt then tried to make the whole movie look like that and have pulled it off in glorious 35mm. The world of the cops, the DA’s office, the FEDs office is always grey and generic. Doc is referred to as a dirty hippy or a filthy hippy frequently throughout the film, mostly by Bigfoot, but this highlights the warring factions in America at this time without making the film all about it. As we watch Doc toke on joint after joint, laughing gas, coke and mistakenly some PCP our own recollections and lucidity start to waver slightly. What name was that again? Who said that? Should I have remembered that? It gets swirled up into a heady mix of scenes and conversations that although make sense also seem verging on ludicrous. The names are ridiculous in themselves: Puck Beaverton, Bigfoot, Riggs Warbling and even Shaster Faye Hepworth, names whispered and repeated in an almost shamanic mantra. It’s a potent effect. A slow, sneaky, creeping, hazy trip. Far out man. Indeed. 

Shasta refers to herself in relation to the term Inherent Vice; it is a term in marine law that refers to the fact that there are just some risks that are completely unavoidable. They are going to happen. Some things are so fragile that it is inescapable that they will be damaged, in a wider sense we can apply it to the fact that some things will just degrade (some books, art even films eventually will fade away). There is a sad inevitability about it all and that can be applied to human nature, especially the disappointing human nature on display here in Inherent Vice that Doc is trying to counteract. 

Inherent Vice is a challenging and fun piece of film-making from one of the most interesting writer/directors working today. It will take a few more viewings before more sense is made of it and that is the joy of Anderson’s work. So let’s stop the over analysing and just breathe a tiny sigh of relief Anderson didn’t fancy Gravity’s Rainbow this time around. I’ll end with another Amazon reader quote that is about the book but sums up the film rather well, TomCat in Cardiff: “If you're just after a frequently hilarious, convoluted but ultimately satisfying hardboiled crime adventure, then go for it; after all, there's nothing wrong with that”.

Si's View: A sprawling, vaguely coherent, often unintelligible, frequently funny movie that swirls around you for slightly too long. If you enjoyed Altman's take on The Long Goodbye (a movie I initially hated before completely coming around to), you'll likely feel similarly about this one. You can trace much of the vibe here back to any number of the slow paced film noir of the 40's and 50's. I left the screening not having a clue whether I rated it or not and honestly, I still feel the same two days later. As commented by pretty much everybody, this is a movie that will demand at least a second viewing.  

Check out the trailer here.

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