A word of advice for those who wish to watch and enjoy Inherent Vice: don’t bother trying to follow the plot. It’s Raymond Chandler through a cloud of cannabis haze, and I was lost after five minutes. No matter, though, I had a great time, as director P.T. Anderson has created a world that is a pleasure to visit, even if it does cause a contact high.
This is the first film adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon (unread by me), who is one of the most obscure writers in the American pantheon (he’s so obscure there are no pictures of him). The story itself is a private-eye mystery, involving Nazi bikers, drug-dealing dentists, Chinese massage girls, and lots and lots of pot. Our hero is Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a kind of proto-Lebowski, shaggy of hair, frequently bare of foot, and more often than not baked. But he’s a licensed P.I., and is approached by his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) about a plot to put her lover, a fabulously wealthy real estate mogul, into the booby hatch.
Phoenix, I believe, is in every scene, and he’s great company as he traverses the very wacky world of the California beaches in 1970. His alter-ego, a crew-cutted cop played by Josh Brolin (a marvelously over the top performance), dogs his every step. Brolin is described by the narrator as “a bad luck planet in today’s horoscope, here’s the old hippie-hating mad dog himself in the flesh: Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. SAG member, John Wayne walk, flat top of Flintstone proportions and that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations.” Pretty soon the plot threads resemble a bowl of spaghetti, as Phoenix also gets involved in a search for a musician (Owen Wilson) who has been declared dead but is very much alive.
Anderson, as I’m sure Pynchon did, uses the tropes of the private-eye story in a twisted sense of parody. Some of this is very funny, as Anderson uses a variety of famous actors to pop up in bizarre cameos. They range from Benecio Del Toro as Phoenix’s lawyer (who specializes in marine law), Reese Witherspoon as a D.A. who isn’t too good to have an occasional roll in the hay with Phoenix, to Michelle Sinclair (also known as adult film star Bella Donna) who lets Phoenix know her preference is two men at a time. By the time Martin Short shows up in a purple suit, I was ready for anything.
I have loved some films by Anderson, and hated others. But one thing I can say about him is that he is consistent in creating worlds that are unique to him, all set in California. Inherent Vice is such a world, the days of hippie culture, or as the narrator describes, when girls wore bikini bottoms and faded Country Joe and the Fish t-shirts. The productions design by David Crank and costumes by Mark Bridges are spot-on, and the whole atmosphere seems just right, and put me back in a time and place that has roots in history but it also a state of mind. The opening shot, of the beach between two ramshackle houses, put us in a frame of mind immediately, and when Anderson returns to that shot it’s like coming home.
There are some scenes of complete bafflement and whimsy. In a somewhat Taratino-esque move, Anderson interrupts a scene between Del Toro and Phoenix with them ordering lunch, and almost all the scenes between Phoenix and Waterston seemed incomprehensible. The last one may be because Waterston is gloriously naked, and thus I wasn’t really concentrating on what she was saying.
Inherent Vice is not for all tastes, but I really dug it. I also loved the music, both the score by Jonny Greenwood and the selection of songs. I ordered the soundtrack upon coming home from the theater.
My grade for Inherent Vice: B+