If Raymond Chandler had been born thirty years later, dropped out and headed to Haight-Ashbury with flowers in his hair, then he might have produced something like this…
Los Angeles, 1970. Following 1969’s twin horrors of Altamont and the Tate-La Bianca murders, the sixties dream has turned rancid under the California sun. Licensed private investigator, professional Dr. Feelgood and committed stoner Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives a visit by an old flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She is having an affair with property developer Mickey Wolfmann, but his wife and her lover are plotting to have him committed to legally seize his holdings.
Larry can’t turn down his ex, but what begins as a simple investigation soon uncovers deeper conspiracies involving drug smuggling, communist actors, a mysterious yacht once lost in the Bermuda Triangle and sinister dentists.
Doc is also hampered by the intervention of his nemesis, LAPD homicide detective and sometime movie extra Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). With his pressed suits and geometrically precise crew cut Bjornsen is the ultimate square but harbours libertarian values making him an unlikely ally when the FBI enters the scene.
Honestly, any further attempt to summarise Inherent Vice’s shaggy dog plot is not merely futile but beside the point. Suffice to say, it’s all about a dame.
The first film adaptation of a novel by the notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon – a man so mysterious it was once erroneously suggested he was the unibomber – Inherent Vice sees director Paul Thomas Anderson loosening up after twin masterpieces There Will Be Blood and The Master. The film features a generous helping of ribald humour and stoner comedy.
Particularly hilarious is the Phoenix and Brolin double act in which it is the stoned hippy who surprisingly emerges as the straight man. Brolin is terrific in this. His constant repressed rage at seventies culture makes even the act of ordering pancakes in a Japanese restaurant hilarious.
Anderson’s sprawling multi-character films have long been compared to those of Robert Altman. Inherent Vice is no different. The obvious benchmark is Altman’s 1973 Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye. Joaquin Phoenix certainly channels something of the crumpled charm Elliot Gould brought to his version of Chandler’s hero Philip Marlowe – only where Gould had a glass of rye and a cutting remark always on hand, Phoenix has a joint and a look of befuddlement.
Gloriously photographed with excellent period detail, this is also Anderson’s most indulgent film. The tangled plot occasionally becomes becalmed in irrelevant sub-plots and some of the big name cast are given very little – Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon in particular. However, it really matters not that the plot is nearly impossible to follow. Chandler rarely showed much concern for narrative transparency and Pynchon certainly doesn’t. If you can get in step with the shuffling, laid back pacing and frequent bursts of blue humour, then Inherent Vice is less about tangled conspiracies than a remarkably sweet and melancholy film about a guy who just can’t get his old lady off his mind.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short
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