The desolate souls of Inherent Vice, the spent wanderers and dope fiends, are Paul Thomas Anderson’s stock in trade. Whether it’s Adam Sandler looking for love or Tom Cruise looking for a father, the hunt goes ever on. A search for adjectives to describe this film continues apace, but his follow-up to The Master sees Anderson being defiantly Anderson; he knows what he’s saying, and we have to catch up. Lay back and enjoy, then let the vapours clear and think about it. That’s when you really get the hit. Buy the ticket; take the ride.”
Given the breadth and depth of the themes and subjects he’s covered over the years, it’s hardly surprising that it’s taken over five decades for the work of Thomas Pynchon to make it to the big screen. It’s clear to see what it was in Pynchon’s seventh novel that appealed to Anderson enough to make it into his seventh feature. The Altman devotee would jump at the chance to make this demented cousin of The Long Goodbye. In place of Philip Marlowe, we get Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), part-detective, part-dude. He is what Hunter S. Thompson would call a ‘high-powered mutant’, one of those wonderful breeds that’s too weird to live and too rare to die. The comparisons to Raoul Duke are apt; the hash-smoked environs of Pynchon’s prose are full of gonzo doodahs in pursuit of peyote. When we first see Doc, he seems to be in an imbibed mellowness when in sashays his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Her perma-smiled face comes begging a favour. Her lover, billionaire Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is being set up by his wife and her lover in a plot to get his money. It must be an act of undiminished love on Shasta’s part to hire Doc to foil the plot. In certain scenes, he appears unable to find his own feet, let alone a clue. Still, the film surrounding him isn’t all that interested in finding out what’s happened, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
For a film with such labyrinthine plotting, Inherent Vice pays it relatively little attention, letting the action unfold perpendicular to Doc’s stumblings. That’s not to say that Pynchon’s narrative doesn’t go anywhere; it all dovetails relatively neatly, but it’s not the film’s primary concern. Inherent Vice’s primary register is capturing a sense of time and place. In doing so, it forms a loose trilogy with Anderson’s previous outings to chart the evolution/bastardization of the American Dream. The century started off with Daniel Plainview’s pillaging of oil and milkshakes in There Will Be Blood, before jumping to the early 1950s to see America heal itself after the war with religion and ego in The Master. In Inherent Vice, we watch the optimism of the 1960s boil over to cover the West Coast in blunt smoke. Though Robert Elswit’s hazy cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s slyly upbeat score hint at that decade’s promise, darkness lingers nearby. The country has clearly given up on looking for answers outside its borders; despite being at its height, the Vietnam War is never mentioned. All that’s left is weed and what remains of the boom of the late ‘50s. Doc’s investigations lead him to a strip mall that remains undeveloped, save for a brothel. Sex is in ready supply, but all other trade seems to be drying up.
After both Wolfmann and Shasta disappear, Doc gets lost in the weedy fog, coming up against neo-Nazis, a dope-running triad called the Golden Fang and a coked-up dentist (Martin Short), all the while hunting down a wayward saxophonist (Owen Wilson) who has something to do with the whole Wolfmann affair. The first viewing of Inherent Vice is best taken as something to be experienced rather than comprehended. Use subsequent viewings to plug the gaps, and admire the talent on display first and foremost. The whole cast commit to the hippy-dippy insanity. The glazed far-off look in Phoenix’s face is a source of joy, whilst an enjoyable ensemble of names big and small come and go to add flavours of all kinds. Benicio Del Toro homages Dr. Gonzo by playing Doc’s (maritime) lawyer Sauncho Smilax, whilst Josh Brolin gives typically good grunt as Bigfoot Bjornsen, the cop who simultaneously helps and hinders Docs’ enquiries. The best turn of the film is arguably Katherine Waterston as Shasta; though she’s often as high as anyone else onscreen, her smile and her delicate features offer warmth as an occasional counterbalance to the insanity being perpetrated around her.
And what insanity it is. Anderson describes the film as his version of a Cheech and Chong picture, with hints of Airplane! thrown in. The best comparison is another Chandler-inflected laugher, one with equally complex plotting and memorable characterisations. That said, no film can touch the stoned antics of The Big Lebowski, so Anderson doesn’t actively try to match its laugh count. Instead of set pieces and one-liners, Anderson luxuriates in the pure nonsense of the times. Constantly soundtracked by sky-high narration from Joanna Newsom’s Sortilège, Inherent Vice pitches Americana as farce. Our nominal leading man is often greeted with a cartoonish “What’s up, doc?”, while dope sends conversations rambling on past coherence. The film ends up dragging at points because it’s content to allow its inhabitants have their intoxicants, with most characters experiencing what Sortilège calls ‘doper’s ESP’ (read: paranoia). As a legal concept, ‘inherent vice’ refers to the flaws in goods or property that lead to natural deterioration over a period of time. The character’s ramblings are the inherent vice of Inherent Vice. Then again, that’s Anderson’s point. The pratfalls, the ramblings and the hookah are driven by sadness at the passing of the promise of the 1960s. The plot continues on around Doc, as if to suggest the world will move on and this dude will be left behind regardless. Does the film itself falls victim to its own flaws? Or was that the point? Don’t overthink it. To quote one one of cinema’s great purveyors of the herb, change down; find your neutral space. All the pieces will fit together in the end.