Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, a spiralling stoner detective comedy, is less a story than an atmosphere to imbibe.
Inherent Vice

Image: supplied

“I need your help, Doc,” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) whispers to her ex-boyfriend, Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant), when she slides up to his doorstep by the seaside, telling a shady tale of her current real estate mogul lover (Eric Roberts, Lovelace), and a kidnapping, money-grabbing plot that’s a-cooking. “You’ve never let me down, Doc,” she reminds him with a smile, and the stoner private investigator is on the case, tussling with determined L.A. detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), trawling through various wheeling and dealing, and looking for more than one missing person.

The time is 1970 as the soundtrack makes clear, and the place is the fictional Gordita Beach, a southern Californian surfer’s enclave overrun with opposing forces: crime and corruption versus carefree hippies. As he searches for the answers to several mysteries in a cloud of smoke, Doc straddles both lines, as does Inherent Vice. Thomas Pynchon’s famed 2009 novel has made the leap to film courtesy of acclaimed writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, its dense prose and meandering events remaining intact. It’s a match made in heaven; who better to adapt the first of the author’s works in his over 50-year career to make it to the screen than the auteur of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master, all beholden to tales, visuals and characters both bold and lived-in in tandem.

With its spiralling narrative and large ensemble of players, Inherent Vice falls from the same mould, albeit less a story than an atmosphere to imbibe, and less a case to solve than a world to inhabit. When Bigfoot asks Doc, “I hope this won’t be another one of those unabridged, paranoid hippie monologues I seem obliged to sit through?”, his words capture the satire underpinning this sprawling opus of comical P.I., law enforcement and counterculture escapades. Reminders that this is a comedy aren’t necessary, with the film ensuring its deadpan dialogue and surreal swirl of scenarios are hilarious from start to finish. Reminders that part of the point is all there in the title – the unavoidable, in-built personality quirks and proclivities that decide and dictate our actions – shouldn’t be required, either. 

This being a P.T. Anderson feature, the director favours his usual flourishes with his returning cohort of collaborators, slowly sidling up to the mix of figures that fill cinematographer Robert Elswit’s (Nightcrawler) frames, letting scenes run their course in long takes masterfully pieced together by editor Leslie Jones (The Words), and making the sounds of Jonny Greenwood’s score paint as much of a picture as the kaleidoscope of colours that burst off the screen. In look as well as in feel, his film is a noir-ish detective story laced with haze and hallucinogens, with his career-long debt to the movies of the 1970s getting its biggest playground – fittingly so, in an effort that ponders how the decade started in the thrall of the one before it, Doc and his motley crew of compadres and enemies the holdbacks in a changing era.

The filmmaker’s style lets the story drift along as only this story can, but Anderson’s knack for casting gives the film form and structure. From the blank face Phoenix sports whenever someone greets his character with “What’s up, Doc?” to Brolin’s alternating mania and seriousness when indulging Bigfoot’s food preferences, penchants for frozen bananas and pancakes most notable, it’s the performances the shagginess of the plot hangs off of. Though the lead and his ostensible foil steal the show with their fine-tuned comic energy, a wealth of well-placed familiar faces also give flesh to bit players embroiled in the nesting doll-like capers. Each is a splash of off-kilter colour and texture, whether a maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro, Guardians of the Galaxy), an assistant district attorney (Reese Witherspoon, Wild), a former junkie (Jena Malone, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1) and her presumed-dead husband (Owen Wilson, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), or a receptionist (Maya Rudolph, Big Hero 6), a drug-addled dentist (Martin Short, TV’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and a Black Guerrilla member (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Gambler). 

That messy mix of everything and everyone is Inherent Vice exactly, a film that, above all else, is always in its given moment – and Doc’s inimitable headspace – regardless of the new details arising and the information constantly being thrown at the audience. It is also one that just goes with the flow, in line with its time period, its many loose threads, its oft-stoned yet in-the-loop protagonist and his omni-present narrating pal (musician Joanna Newsom). Chaotic and circuitous as it all may be, that’s the movie, and that’s Anderson’s interpretation of chasing villains to impress an ex-girlfriend, wading through an onslaught of complications, and watching a dream, a decade and a lifestyle slowly fade out.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Inherent Vice
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
US, 2014, 148 mins

Release date: March 12
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: MA

Sarah Ward

Monday 16 March, 2015

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay