Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Larry "Doc" Sportello), Josh Brolin (Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen), Katherine Waterston (Shasta Fay Hepworth), Owen Wilson (Coy Harlingen), Benicio Del Toro (Sauncho Smilax, Esq), Hong Chau (Jade), Jena Malone (Hope Harlingen), Reese Witherspoon (Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball), Martin Short (Dr.Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S.), Joanna Newsom (Sortilège), Jordan Christian Hearn (Denis), Jeannie Berlin (Aunt Reet), Eric Roberts (Michael Z. Wolfmann), Serena Scott Thomas (Sloane Wolfmann), Maya Rudolph (Petunia Leeway), Michael Kenneth Williams (Tariq Khalil), Yvette Yates (Luz), Andrew Simpson (Riggs Warbling), Sam Jaeger (Agent Flatweed), Timothy Simons (Agent Borderline), Jack Kelly (Burke Stodger), illian Bell (Chlorinda), Michelle Sinclair (Clancy Charlock), Sasha Pieterse (Japonica Fenway), Keith Jardine (Puck Beaverton), Peter McRobbie (Adrian Prussia), Martin Donovan (Crocker Fenway).
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, a faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, meanders more than any other movie in recent memory. It has a complex plot – all involving Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a PI, and the various people who have hired him to work for them – and there is a lot of them. Somehow all of these plots come together in the end. Or maybe they don’t – but it doesn’t really matter. In many ways, the Pynchon novel, and now the Anderson film is a spiritual heir to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels - in particular The Long Goodbye, which one of Anderson’s favorite filmmakers Robert Altman made into a masterpiece in 1973. Re-reading those Marlowe novels again a few months ago – after reading Pynchon’s novel – I was struck by two things about the plot – the first being how complicated they were, and the second how inconsequential they are to the enjoyment of the novel itself. In Chandler, it was all about the writing style, the dialogue and Marlowe himself. Although I also noticed how often in Marlowe novels the end result would have been the same even if Marlowe wasn’t hired in the first damn place – he’s there more to act as a witness to the corruption and murder of those all around him, than to really untangle it.
See, this is the type of film Inherent Vice is – one that goes off into tangents, and gets me off on them as well. I didn’t mean to start writing about Philip Marlowe, but I did anyway. And I’m leaving it there because it gives you an idea of what watching Inherent Vice is like. It is a movie that has a major through line – that of Sportello investigating the disappearance of Mickey Wolfmann, who is the current boyfriend of Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks Doc to look into what Mickey’s wife, Sloan, and her lover, may have planned for Mickey – only to disappear at the same time Mickey does, although perhaps not to the same place. But throughout the movie Doc will also be hired by a member of a black panther like group (Michael K. Williams) to find the Neo-Nazi bodyguard of Wolfmann as well. And by Hope Harlington (Jena Malone) to find her supposedly dead husband, Cole (Owen Wilson) – who will in turn ask Doc to look in on Hope and their daughter, because he can’t, because he has turned snitch for the cops. He’ll also keep running into Jade (Hong Chau), a “masseuse”, who likes Doc and warns him away from the Golden Fang – which leads him to a strange encounter with Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short), who then has an unfortunate accident with a trampoline. I haven’t even mentioned his lawyer, played by Benicio Del Toro, perhaps cast because he also played Hunter S. Thompson’s lawyer in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Or his sometimes girlfriend, a DA played by Reese Witherspoon, who is straight well on duty, and seemingly disgusted by the pot smoking Doc, but still visits him late at night for “pizza”. Oh, and the film’s central love story may just be between Doc and Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a cop with a flat top, who verbally and/or physically abuses Doc almost every time they meet, although underneath all that bluster, there are really tender feelings that flow both ways – both often in silence.
I do believe that most of these plot threads are tired up in the end – at least somewhat. I also believe that it doesn’t really matter if they are and aren’t, because the movie isn’t really about its plot anyway. I’m sure there will be numerous internet postings dedicated to ironing out all the mysteries in the movie – and I’m also sure I won’t read any of them because I really don’t care.
So then what is Inherent Vice about then? Well, it’s about a lot of things – but most obviously it is about the rot that set in after the idealism of the 1960s, before Watergate introduced the mass cynicism of the 1970s. Manson is referenced a number of times throughout Inherent Vice – and Manson is often cited as one of the moments that killed the 1960s. Inherent Vice takes place in 1970 – in Los Angeles – and the spirit of the 1960s is all but dead. Doc is doing his best to keep it alive – he’s never not stoned in the movie, and has massive mutton chop sideburns, long hair, a ridiculous hat, and still uses phrases like “far out” ironically. But he’s going through the motions as much as anything – he’s miserable. He was in love with Shasta, at least as much as he could be in love when he’s stoned all the time, and now she’s gone. She has three pivotal scenes in the movie – the first as she walks back into his life, and gets him to care about something again – her, and the case she has for him. The second, a flashback (brilliantly shot in a single take), during a rainstorm, near the end of their relationship, in which everything seemed so idyllic. The third is the best scene in the movie (again, all in one take, lasting minutes) – as she seduces Doc as she talks about all the ways she has essentially sold out. As the narrator, a groovy chick named Sortilège says, the rot was already there, even in that idyllic flashback, even if Doc never quite knew it. Doc never quite knows anything. He takes a lot of notes during his interviews with people, and the cuts to what he’s writing (“Paranoia alert”, “Something Spanish”) get some of the biggest laughs of the movie.
How have I made Inherent Vice sound so far? Probably like it’s a dark, depressing movie. To be fair, it does touch on some very dark themes – but the surface of the movie is deliriously entertaining. It is a comedy- and often a very funny one. Altman’s Long Goodbye adaptation is one inspiration, but the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski is another. And since Bridges is now far too old to play Sportello, Anderson cast the next best thing – Joaquin Phoenix, who is asked to do a hell of lot during the course of this movie. He’s playing a classic stoner to be sure but because Anderson shifts tones, sometimes even within scenes, Phoenix has to keep up. He has to be over the top one second, and understated the next. He has to suggest Doc’s positive and negative qualities through a haze of marijuana smoke. If Inherent Vice is The Big Lebowski, than Josh Brolin is John Goodman’s Walter to Phoenix’s The Dude. Again, at first it seems like Brolin is going so playing Bigfoot as very broad at first, but as it moves along there are different moments here. The connection between Doc and Bigfoot is underlined, subtly, by Anderson – and late in the film they apologize to each other like a bickering married couple. Like the connection between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd in Anderson’s latest film, The Master, their relationship is too complicated to really put into words.
I know that Inherent Vice will frustrate a lot of people. It has so much plot, but isn’t really concerned with it. It takes wild tangents that are seemingly related to nothing – the delirious, cocaine fever dream with Martin Short, so great in such a small role, is an example. The tone switches from slapstick to dark and depressing and back again. In most cases things like this would signal that the director had no idea what he was doing – but here it’s all a part of Anderson’s grand scheme, and it somehow works brilliantly. This is technically the second time Anderson has adapted a novel to the screen – but anyone who has read Upton Sinclair’s Oil knows that There Will Be Blood is pretty much an original screenplay. This time, he faithfully adapts Pynchon – although he changes the ending a little, perhaps to not make it overly depressing, and he follows the tone that Pynchon set. That doesn’t take anything away from Anderson (who the hell else would even try to do this with Pynchon). If you are someone who wants everything to be wrapped up in a neat little package, for a film that goes from point A to point B to point C with no deviations, there are a lot of movies out there you can see. That isn’t what Inherent Vice is. It’s much more than that – and its why it’s one of the very best films of the year, and may just be the film from 2014 I will revisit more than any other, Hell, I wish I could go again right now.