Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Within the intangible mysteries of Inherent Vice, through its irrational behaviour, its loose, associative narrative and its flurry of amusing names and places, what really happens? What’s going to happen next? Wait, what’s happening now? As Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest draws to a close I remain baffled, but hardly disappointed. It’s a trip, a zany stoner romp through the heartland of 70s paranoia; in through the out door and down the rabbit hole, with Joaquin Phoenix’s spaced-out ‘Doc’ Sportello as our guide on a guileless journey. If you think this sounds like the ultimate stoner-flick you’d be sorely mistaken. It might have no use for causality or narrative coherence, but it’s still a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the nonesuch chronicler of American stories. You’re going to need your wits about you for this one. Inherent Vice is, rather, like the anti-stoner film—to watch it high would be mental suicide. It omits its own cloud of contraband smoke, and the experience of watching it is like drifting away on a roaring contact high.
I guess it begins on a beach, somewhere in fictional LA, when the slinky Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) slides into the shack of one hippie dope-fiend and private investigator ‘Doc’ Sportello (Phoenix), her ex-lover, and asks him to investigate the insidious abduction of her new lover, Mickey Wolfmann, a real-estate mogul. It seems like your run-of-the-mill hard-boiled noir catalyst, but remarkably, this slight ignition kicks into full throttle a chronology of events linked by coincidence, consequence and, sometimes, Doc’s own paranoid free-association. Narrating the film, and dissolving in and out of the scenery, like the patron saint of hallucinogenics, is Sortilège (none other than Joanna Newsom), whose relationship to Doc (and Shasta) is never made completely clear.
A caravansary of strange, delightful characters punctuates the strung-out search for Mickey Wolfmann, amongst them the lumbering, flat-topped enemy-accomplice Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), ex-junkie Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) and her husband-on-the-run Coy (Owen Wilson), marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) and, above all, a remarkable Martin Short in a brief but memorable zip-line through a coke-whizzed (sub)plot as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. Incredulous names and titles are flecked around ad absurdum. There is a heroin cartel-cum-syndicate of dentists called the Golden Fang, a runaway daughter named Japonica Fenway, and a cult-like asylum where a propaganda experiment and a white supremacist regime mix inconspicuously.
The novel on which the film is based is by the elusive Thomas Pynchon, whose prose has long been considered unadaptable. What’s more, Pynchon has never allowed anyone to attempt it, until now. Anderson has translated the novel sentence-by-sentence into a screenplay, and saved his own changes for that easier-to-adapt format. Still, if you’ve been near Pynchon’s prose, you’d know how demanding a task Anderson set himself up for. Pynchon writes in an idiosyncratic, often impenetrable style, his sentences winding wildly in and out of deep grammar structures and veering into allusion and social commentary whilst his character sit on pause. It’s remarkable that Anderson’s film moves at such a breakneck pace; even more so when you consider that you’re rarely getting anywhere. It’s in Anderson’s framing, in the detail and movement of his shots, that he’s able to tell a story that gets any further than just the exhaustively tied-up immediate plot.
Anderson’s soiree of counter-cultural delights does not come without the foreboding atmosphere of his previous work. In all of his films characters attempt navigation in a world that spins preternaturally faster than they are comfortable with. In Boogie Nights the eighties hits with a whacked-out thud that bruises Dirk Diggler’s inflated ego and sweeps him away in a clatter of white-suited overspending, gunfire and nightmarish soft-rock. Magnolia‘s contestants—and they’re all contestants in this cheesy game-show called Life—are losing their grasp on reality so rapidly that, in a sudden rapture, frogs fall from the sky. More recently, in The Master and There Will Be Blood, his protagonists become starry-eyed at the promise of a better life—be it American greed, be it a Cause worth fighting for in a freshly warless America—and spin into their own self-created insanity. And is there a more confused and mistaken central character than Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love?
Without too carefully pigeonholing Anderson’s divisive and disparate works, there are consistencies throughout them that recur in Inherent Vice. To Doc, so perennially blazed that he can hardly etch comprehensible notes on a notepad, accepting the task of preventing the kidnapping of Mickey Wolfmann is like kicking a dusty cavalcade of problems into the atmosphere and trying to figure them out before they settle back into the dirt, only to be swept up again by barefoot wanderers. The situation develops too quickly into an insidious conspiracy for the green-brained Doc, and even for us. All of a sudden the P.I. license, Shasta Fay, and the chilled out cabin on the beach—and narrative comprehension—seem like by-products of disillusioned plan to bask freely in the hippy lifestyle that, in the sixties, seemed harmless. Wasn’t this supposed to be a rollicking stoner comedy?
Of course, it’s wildly enjoyable, even if it seems that the usual threshold by which humour is measured has been stolen and replaced by Beckett. It’s currency is absurd humour, just as The Big Sleep‘s was romance. It inherits a spot alongside that magnificent Howard Hawks film and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, both variations of Chandler’s Marlowe character, in a tradition of unstuck hard-boiled detective stories. Inherent Vice departs further from the original, via Altman’s noir subversion, and into abstraction. With Pynchon and Doc, he creates a similarly chaotic atmosphere that can be savoured through its pleasures despite lacking a firm foothold.
Hawks created a stylish noir, as craven and convoluted as they come, with primal importance given to visual pleasure and romantic crescendo. It’s all about Lauren Bacall ending up in Bogie’s arms. Altman’s Long Goodbye is a severely different beast—Elliot Gould stumbles through a beachside location and murder plot similar to Vice‘s, but it’s pangs of violence and (if you really investigate) discernible narrative can be considered a return of the bafflingly romantic original to its roots of realism.
Anderson, once an Altman acolyte and imitator who could almost outsize his idol in sheer scale and dizzying scope, can now stand on how own two feet with his own idiosyncratic style reassured. Here he takes his obsession with his master (he was an assistant director on Altman’s Prairie Home Companion) and transposes it into influence and subtle allusion—a dinner-table tableau that, for a split second, blasphemously references Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ as in Altman’s M*A*S*H (itself riffing on Bunuel’s Viridiana); an ensemble cast that is impossible to keep up with; the hash-burnt milieu and meandering spirit of The Long Goodbye—in a continuation of this legacy. Noir incomprehensibility pushed to its limits, and filtered through the mind of the American cinema’s most masterful director of the camera.
A tradition of ‘Last Supper’ allusions, from Bunuel’s Viridiana to Altman’s M*A*S*H to PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
There’s saving humour throughout the script that’s an easy grip for the logically inclined amongst us, performed rambunctiously by a zealous and impressive cast—it’s Anderson’s funniest film to date. Sportello is atrocious at his job, and only really benefits from his persistence, but Pheonix plays him with complete seriousness and perplexity. At every left turn he’s perfectly aghast—sometimes he’s aghast on the straight-and-narrow. Josh Brolin surprises with some serious comic chops, whilst Martin Short, Jena Malone and a young Jordan Christian Hearn (in his acting debut) stand out amongst the vast supporting cast. The ghostly psychedelia of the 70s is captured perfectly by production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges, who never veer into easy caricature, whilst Jonny Greenwood’s variation on the classical noir soundtrack (his best yet) compliments the choice soundtrack cuts, which include the flourishing ‘Les Fleurs’ from Minnie Riperton (Anderson’s deceased mother-in-law) and ‘Vitamin C’ from Can.
Inherent Vice is a rich tapestry of oddities, perhaps better symbolised as a magic carpet ride; a film to float away on. It will reward an adventurous spirit and leave behind those unwilling to take a toke of its equivocal substance. There is no Machiavellian pleasure for Anderson here, no indication that he’s pulling a fast one. As a sun-bleached Californian day turns to insidious denim, and as time becomes unstuck and ‘events’, the very substance of movies, swirl into a hallucinogenic storm of groovy textiles, the neon light clicks in your brain—it’s not about the chronology that leads us to the end credits, it’s about how we get there. Anderson, with Pynchon’s help, has made a film more interesting than most others, its peers Holy Motors and Upstream Color. It’s a novel of riches.
Inherent Vice is in cinemas March 12.