Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Inherent Vice

Review by Pamela Zoslov

No one can accuse Paul Thomas Anderson of lacking ambition. His films, especially the recent ones, are dense, tendentious, monumental, every frame announcing its importance. Anderson's films imply a gravity their subjects don't really merit. I'm thinking of THE MASTER, which squandered a chance to explore the cult of Scientology, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which turned an Upton Sinclair book into a butt-numbing, grandiose marathon with a single memorable scene.

By his own admission, Anderson — Ghoulardi's son, for you old Cleveland readers — isn't very concerned about storytelling. “I never remember the plots of movies,” he told a class of film students. “I remember how they make me feel.”

In that sense, he's kind of a good match for Thomas Pynchon, the notoriously reclusive author of labyrinthine novels including Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. Anderson has adapted Pynchon's most accessible book, Inherent Vice (2009), an entertaining, Chandleresque hippie-noir potboiler set in Southern California in 1970. The twisty, hallucinatory narrative involves hippies, a real estate mogul, a heroin cartel, extortion, the LAPD, Richard Nixon, the Manson Family, the Black Panthers, massage parlors, COINTELPRO, and a cornucopia of crazy counterculture characters.

The film evokes, among numerous other films, The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman's modern Raymond Chandler adaptation with Elliot Gould as a shaggy-haired Philip Marlowe. Anderson's INHERENT VICE presents scruffy Joaquin Phoenix as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a perpetually stoned private eye living in Gordita Beach, California.

Sportello's pretty ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up one night and tells him about a plot to kidnap her lover, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Soon afterward, Shasta goes missing, and Doc investigates, with the hostile assistance of “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a hippie-hating LAPD detective. Along the way, Doc stumbles upon a web of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and a lot of strange folks and happenings..

With his mutton-chop sideburns, dirty feet and ever-present joint, Doc is the moral center of this kaleidoscopic, sometimes cartoonish yarn. Morality, in the story, is defined in a uniquely hippie way: Doc is the guy who smokes a lot of pot but won't touch heroin.

So many actors and actresses are crammed into the film, there is scarcely time to enjoy them or get to know their characters. Who wouldn't want to see more, for instance, of Martin Short, who plays Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a corrupt dentist whose wig and velvet suit make him look like Phil Spector? With its myriad celebrity cameos, the movie sometimes feels like a hipster It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

In an effort to stay faithful to Pynchon's book, Anderson places large portions of his prose in the odd, baby-rasp voice of musician Joanna Newsom, who also shows up as Doc's friend Sortil├Ęge (an underdeveloped role). The voice-over narration provides some background for Doc and Shasta's relationship. In a lovely flashback scene, Doc and Shasta, experiencing a dry spell, resort to asking a Ouija board where they can find some weed, then get caught in the rain, where they laugh and kiss as though there's no tomorrow. Scenes like this have a period-accurate hippie mood, as though they were torn from the pages of Gilbert Shelton's underground comic “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.” But like many memorable Anderson scenes, they aren't worth much emotional investment. Who, after all, is Shasta, beyond a pretty face (and breasts and backside, as an erotic spanking scene attests)? Anderson is masterful at assembling eye-popping production design (David Crank), great costumes (Mark Bridges) and brilliant music (Jonny Greenwood), and directing individual scenes that are wildly over-the-top, and blithely unconcerned, as noted, with coherent storytelling.

Fans of Anderson, and maybe also Pynchon, will find a lot here to savor, but others looking for a satisfying viewing experience may come away puzzled by the elliptical, allusive narrative — not to mention exhausted by the film's punishing two-and-a-half-hour running time. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.


  1. gDog here.
    Having slogged my way through Gravity's Rainbow, I'm now most of the way through Inherent Vice. Much lighter fare, IV, as compared to GR. The memorable backside slapping is a theme from GR, for sure, if lighter. I'm glad Pynchon finally got a movie to his credit, but I'm disappointed that you didn't like it better (as I trust your opinion.) How did they handle the ships at sea scene, I wonder? So much of the story is hallucinogenic, it seems like a nice fit with the silver screen...oh well, maybe I'll see for myself, provided it ever shows in provincial socal.

  2. I think it's something that, like many things, works better on the page, gDog. I read some of the book and liked it quite a bit; also liked the hippie atmospherics in the film. Like all of PTA's films, there are some wonderful set pieces, but as a linear narrative it's a tedious slog.


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