Los Angeles, 1970: the light drug haze of the summer of love has spilled over into a new decade, fostering an environment in which paranoia and conspiratorial nightmares are no longer just the realm of Hippiedom, but the day to day reality of ‘Straight-land’ USA. Charles Manson’s crime lingers over the city, as does the echoing gunfire of Vietnam. Nixon is still several years from resigning from the presidency and the distinctions between ‘hip’ and ‘square’ are becoming increasingly blurred in the midst of all that pot smoke. Once again, Paul Thomas Anderson ventures out in search of the elusive mirage of the ‘American Dream’ in his new film Inherent Vice.
Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator, but one more reminiscent of Shaggy from Scooby Doo than Philip Marlowe. Usually stoned and therefore confused about the situations that befall him, Vice begins with Doc’s ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) walking into his apartment unexpectedly, proclaiming that the wife of her current boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, is going have him committed to a psychiatric institution against his will in a bid to collect on his vast fortune. Jumping at the chance to bring Shasta back into his life, alongside the intrigue of the case itself, Doc sets out to do exactly what (he thinks) he does best: to track down the suspects and make sense of an expansive mystery which concerns an assortment of druggie property developers, (supposedly dead) surf rock saxophone players, neo-nazis and a criminally degenerate syndicate of dentists. Also on the trail is the heavy-handed yin to Doc’s somnolent yang: the snarling, unpredictable LAPD detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (a pitch perfect performance from Josh Brolin), who is working on some of the same cases Doc is ‘examining’.
From here, Vice propels us through a narrative of labyrinthine and deliberately complicated proportions on a journey of zany comedy often counterbalanced by a sense of deep melancholy, in a film which is both an homage to, and spoof of, the pulp detective genre; it is a neo-noir odyssey for the modern age. A (mostly) faithful adaptation of post-modern literary giant Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Inherent Vice‘s plot is something which simply can’t be recapped in a single statement. Yet, Vice is something close to a genre film (at least in comparison to the director’s most recent work) making use of all the usual film noir cues. But even if Anderson is delivering something comparatively lighter than his most recent efforts, Vice still maintains all of the director’s cinematic talent for artistic, intelligent storytelling.
It’s unnecessary to go over the plot in the context of this review, even if its apparent inaccessibility has become something of a buzzword surrounding the film upon its release – accusations of the narrative’s impenetrability being the go-to response for both audiences and critics unwilling to commit to the film’s rhythm and structure. For my part, I should say that I watched the film with a pre-existing knowledge of the plot’s intricacies, having read Pynchon’s novel and because of this, I probably had more of a grip on the plot than most. It really shouldn’t be thought that Vice is ‘plotless’, but I will concede that it demands more attention and thought than most narratives of this type, which has given rise to the call for this film to be experienced in multiple viewings. However, as its defenders have correctly claimed, Vice is meant to be disorientating for the viewer to a certain extent, replicating the distorted perception of its lead, stoned-out-of-his-mind protagonist. That said, any real life pot-head walking into the cinema believing the film to be a stoner comedy in the same vein as the Apatow brand will no doubt be alienated by the film’s dialogue heavy series of vignettes dissecting the death of the 60s spirit. ‘Whaaaa?’ they will murmur – Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, this is not.
Whilst Vice does have a ‘plot’, albeit a complex but nonetheless important one, the film really does boil down to its focus on character, place and period detail, rather than their precise interweaving into the narrative. Like Pynchon’s novel, Anderson’s adaptation is more of a mood piece, a portrait of a particular time and place. It’s a film which operates on multiple levels. Superficially, this begins with Anderson’s choice to shoot on 35mm, giving it a suitably grimy aesthetic. Expanding outwards onto an emotional level, the film examines the ‘ancient forces of greed and fear’ which remained dormant even after the rise of the hippy spirit and which effectively motivate all characters to do the things they do. There is also a geographical focus to Vice, which calls into question the city of LA, its history and people – amongst other examples, the film’s narrator Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) cites the ‘the sad history of LA land use’ as a precursor to the demolition of a black neighbourhood once occupied by Doc’s customer Tariq (Michael Williams), a theme also explored by Pynchon in his The Crying of Lot 49. Much of the film’s comedy comes from the intermingling of certain personalities with others: hip with square, druggie with sober, the law with criminals. In this sense, Anderson has really lucked out with the incredible ensemble cast he has utilised for Vice, with Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Reece Witherspoon, Jena Malone and effectively everyone else on the billing giving incredible and unique performances.
There is so much to be said about this film, but the only advice I could give at this point is to go and see it… and then see it again. Many will feel alienated by its complex plotting, but those who admire Anderson’s style of filmmaking will not be disappointed by this latest addition to the director’s already formidable filmography. Alongside There Will Be Blood and The Master, I would even be tempted to say that Inherent Vice completes something akin to a thematic trilogy within Anderson’s oeuvre. It is, however, a perfectly compelling, competent and downright entertaining film in its own right; an invitation to a world and assortment of characters I wanted to remain a part of for as long as possible.