The Film: Inherent Vice
What’s It About? Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pot-smoking private eye living in a California beach town in 1970, finds himself pulled into a web of crime and deception when his former girlfriend asks for his help and then disappears. His investigation leads him to the widow of a musician who insists her husband is still alive, a police detective who works as a television extra, and a cocaine-snorting dentist.
Number of Oscar Nominations: 2
Will It Win? Paul Thomas Anderson has been nominated five times for an Oscar but has never won, so, karmically speaking, he’s overdue. It would be a trip if the Academy was to recognise his affectionate, funny, stoner-friendly screenplay adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel. And they well might; most of the Oscars voters are people who lived through the haze of the 1970s and somehow emerged to tell the tale, so they might feel a nostalgic kick out of Inherent Vice.
Anderson probably deserves credit for doing what many thought impossible: successfully adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel for the big screen. Of all Pynchon’s works, this is the first to get a movie adaptation, and i suspect now that Anderson has shown it can be done, other filmmakers will be eager to bring things like V and Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon to the big or small screen (one project already has: the second season of True Detective sounds like it’s borrowed the plot of The Crying of Lot 49).
And Anderson certainly deserves the Oscar. The scripts for The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are formulaic. American Sniper is a terrible film with a terrible script. Only Whiplash with its sudden turns offers strong competition. Costume Designer Mark Bridges has already won an Oscar (The Artist) but it would be far out if he picked one up for all the great threads he puts on people here.
The sub-genre of crime, stoner noir doesn’t contain many films, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may be the best of them. The Dude might disagree and say “well, that’s just like … your opinion, man.” Like the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, Anderson’s film is a loopy, convoluted homage to both film noir and Los Angeles, with kooky, paranoid characters caught up in events beyond their control, and a twisted plot that just about makes sense in spite of all its joyful detours.
The Coens remain in strict control over their story, however, and every shot, cut, line, and song choice is deliberately chosen. Anderson seems far more content to let the story drift, and is happy to tell a deliberately, almost infuriatingly, shaggy dog story. The film has the look and feel of a classic stoner anecdote, one that starts with a couple of characters in a room but soon takes in the whole city and a host of oddballs, loses track of itself, retraces its steps, takes a break to ask ‘where was I?’, and then happily ambles on.
And unlike the accidental shamus the Dude, Doc Sportello (played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix with the most fantastic lambchops this side of a Dickens novel) is a professional, a licensed private investigator (he even has an office of sorts). He even takes notes (they’re rather banal, and I’m sure if he looked at them later, he wouldn’t understand them). He fits the mould of a classic noir detective: he wears a hat, smokes a lot, and is catnip to most of the women he meets. Granted, the hat is a floppy straw thing, the cigarettes are of the mellow variety, and the women are not all the highly-strung high-society types that you see in a Raymond Chandler novel.
Inherent Vice has many little nods to the genre. Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Hammett’s Sam Spade, Doc is sapped and drugged. There is the runaway daughter of a millionaire. There are hop-heads (the main thread of the plot concerns heroin). There is more than a little bit of Chinatown in the plot. As in any classic by Warner Bros. there’s even a night scene shrouded in fog. Like most private eyes, Doc is wary of authority and has an uneasy relationship with the Police, represented here by a menacing, hilarious Josh Brolin.
I won’t even begin to try to outline the plot. Like any good noir story, it’s impossibly convoluted and contains an awful lot of coincidences, but while a classic noir detective would see the murder of someone he was just looking for as a strange inconvenience and a troubling wrinkle in an ongoing case, Doc probably sees it as karmic intervention on the part of the universe. There’s a lot of talk about karma and astrological signs in Inherent Vice. Then again, the protagonist is a hippy.
It’s set in 1970 and if it’s about anything, then I suppose it’s about what happened when the peacenik era came crashing down after the Manson murders. An air of paranoia and suspicion hangs over much of it. Among other things, there are good-natured hippies, mean cops, good-time girls, sugar daddies, neo-Nazis, Black Panthers, shadowy FBI agents, dangerous behind-the-throne figures hovering around Nixon, cults, and drug-dealing dentists. It’s based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, and it rambles on quite a bit, and it’s very funny. You know how Sam Elliot gets a little lost in his narration in The Big Lebowski? Inherent Vice feels like that.
The title comes from a point of law relating to marine insurance, which should be enough to tell you it’s going to be an odd film (a ship is a central part of the plot, and there is even a marine lawyer, but, well, there’s a lot of other stuff, and I’m not sure if the ship is even that important, and the term is used as, you know, a metaphor, man).
Coming after the dour, thematically burdened There Will Be Blood and The Master, Inherent Vice might seem at first glance like a breezy blip on Anderson’s resume, but I think it’s every bit as interesting as anything else he has made. It feels looser than his other films: though his trademark long takes and tracking shots are present, they’re more aimless and seemingly less controlled (with perhaps the exception of one shot composed as The Last Supper, although it remains unclear if Anderson is honouring Da Vinci or his mentor Robert Altman, who famously aped the Renaissance painting in M*A*S*H).
The mood is hazy and so is the look (Anderson shot on 35mm film, so the movie has the gritty texture and lens flares of beloved films of the 1970s). The pace is slow, in part because Anderson moves between scenes with a slow dissolve instead of a hard cut.
As for the cast, with the exception of Phoenix, I think everyone else is a newby to Anderson’s world. The film features Josh Brolin as a surly cop; Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s District Attorney girlfriend; Eric Roberts as a real-estate magnet; Martin Short as a drug-dealing, horny dentist; Owen Wilson as a saxophone player turned government informant; Katherine Waterston as a surfer girl and Doc’s ex-girlfriend; Jena Malone as a drug counsellor (who doesn’t want people to quit, just to take drugs responsibly); Jordan Christian Hearn as Doc’s sidekick; Joanna Newsom as Doc’s astrology-loving friend (she is also the film’s narrator, and although she appears in several scenes with Doc, it’s possible she is imaginary as nobody else seems to see her); Benicio del Toro as a lawyer; Michael Kenneth Williams as an ex-con gangster; Maya Rudolph as Doc’s secretary; and Hong Chau as a happy endings masseuse.
Unlike other recent films which are set in the 1970s, the film seems to have genuine affection for the era. Although it’s filled with caricatures and grotesques, and although the clothes and decor can be hideous, the film’s tone is warm and relaxed even in its moments of high farce. Inherent Vice is a film that you will want to watch more than once, not just because of the complications of the plot (to be fair, I’m not sure all the threads were tied up, but then again, even Chandler wasn’t sure about one of the killings in The Big Sleep). You might want to smoke up before you watch it. That’s cool, man.