Film review: Paul Thomas Anderson breaks down Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix leads a motley ensemble through Inherent Vice, set in 1970 Los Angeles and populated by outrageous, larger than life characters. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Joaquin Phoenix leads a motley ensemble through Inherent Vice, set in 1970 Los Angeles and populated by outrageous, larger than life characters. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

When a movie is as challenging and divisive as Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, the two reviews to be wary of are the dismissal on grounds of incoherence, and overwhelming praise, full of heady analysis that is itself incoherent. Both approaches make use of the passive voice—“impossible to understand” instead of “I didn’t understand it”—and the problem with each is that they see comprehension as a prerequisite for enjoyment.

So I’ll just come out and say it: I have no idea what’s going on in Inherent Vice, but I enjoyed every second of it. The phenomenally convoluted Dashiell Hammett-meets-R. Crumb mystery, the outrageous characters who pop in and out of pothead detective Larry “Doc” Sportello’s chaotic world, the surreal moments that punctuate the already heightened reality: It works. How it does so is a marvel so natural and seemingly intuitive that it changes the question of “How in the world would one adapt a Pynchon novel?” into “Why did it take Anderson so long to make it happen?”

Inherent Vice follows Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective in 1970 Los Angeles who has a knack for stumbling his way through a mystery while heavily altered. Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) pays him a visit to help thwart a kidnapping/brainwashing plot targeting her current boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a Jewish man who enjoys the company of Nazis. Along the way, he encounters a weary COINTELPRO agent (Owen Wilson), an elaborate drug syndicate with links to the dental world (headed by Martin Short), and strikes up a partnership with a police detective who is full of gleeful contempt for civil rights, Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

In addition to the chaos of the story, Anderson makes sure that the audience feels the pressure of a society undergoing full disintegration. Even the name “inherent vice”—while also a clever nod to its noir overtones —refers to items that break down or deteriorate due to either a hidden defect or something inherent in the object, such as works of art or acetate film. It’s easy to imagine someone in 1970 feeling that such a term may refer to the world at large, with the Cold War and its proxy battles in Southeast Asia, rebellions on all social fronts, and the language of revolution entering the mainstream. The film references the ongoing Manson Family trial and the fascination with the young, pretty girls who participated in the murders. Among the progressive ideas, social experimentation and terrific style was a dark side—the fear of the world’s imminent self-destruction—that Anderson does not conceal behind the silliness.

Anderson’s direction may be seen as influenced by either Robert Altman or the Coens, but the comparisons between Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski dry up very quickly; yes, it’s a semi-comic hard-boiled mystery featuring a hippie lead and quasi-fascist ally, but where Lebowski is freewheeling, stylish and referential, Vice is tight and self-contained. I’m sure you could make sense of Inherent Vice if you tried hard enough, but it’s a much more enjoyable experience to watch a virtuoso like Anderson in full control, astonished at how this film is the work of a human brain.

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