If you’ve ever felt the urge to watch a film noir marathon while surfing the most polluted Southern California waves you can find, high on at least three different kinds of hallucinogens, Inherent Vice will be your new favorite movie. If you’ve never had that urge, then I’m giving you fair warning: that’s what watching Inherent Vice feels like. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a great time, at least metaphorically speaking, well then, proceed with caution, I suppose.
The film is set in 1970, in a grimy Los Angeles beach town, and makes as much use of its setting as American Hustle did (and then some), with perms and sideburns for days. This is the barely-post-Charlie Manson L.A., where hippies don’t exist for any cause larger than the right to be stoned and broke, and “flatlanders” seem only to live for the cause of punching hippies in their sideburned faces. We’re following Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually-stoned private investigator who gets a visit from his ex, asking him to help her with a mysterious scheme involving her wealthy land developer boyfriend, his wife, and the wife’s boyfriend. But what is laid out as a simple detective story quickly morphs into something else, something entirely indefinable. This is the part where I would normally present a plot synopsis, but there’s really no use. This plot bleeds out in so many directions, its sprawl feels as endless as Los Angeles itself, which, yes, is a classic noir move. One lead turns into a handful of seemingly but not really unrelated threads, until we’re lost with Doc on some unquantifiable number of intertwined Lebowskian goose chases. Anyway, the plot is not the point. This is Thomas Pynchon we’re talking about, after all. His novels are not exactly known for their linear followable narratives. Add to that the flashy style of Paul Thomas Anderson and what you have are two and a half very dense hours of incredible characters (of which there are many— Josh Brolin’s Hollywood-crazed, civil liberties-abusing cop, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen is a singular force to behold, and Jena Malone’s fake teeth are more than worth the ticket price), crazy circumstances, and a whole lot of style. This movie is a ride. And either you give yourself over to it and commit to enjoying yourself, or you have one hell of a miserable time.
Watching this movie is an exercise in patience. It may at times (maybe LOTS of times) feel like you’re being told the plot of a Raymond Chandler novel by a guy who just took mushrooms. You’re following a private investigator who at any moment may fall asleep/pass out/be knocked unconscious in an alley and forget where he was taking you. But the work pays off. This is possibly the least PT Andersondy of all Anderson’s work. There are no (or at least few) big camera tricks; he’s telling Pynchon’s story more than his own, but the two brands of weird mesh together perfectly. And just like in The Master, Anderson taps into the innate weirdness of his new muse Joaquin Phoenix, but in a way that’s a lot more fun for everyone involved. Inherent Vice may make you work for it, but ultimately it’s worth the fight. You just have to give in.
Vivian Kane">Vivian Kane really wants Hong Chau to be more of a thing next year. Let’s make that happen, okay?