“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”–attributed to Thomas Pynchon in Jules Siegel’s Mar. 1977 Playboy profile
FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , , , Martin Short
PLOT: It’s 1970, and P.I. “Doc” Sportello has his evening interrupted by his ex-girlfriend, concerned about a plot on the part of her new lover’s wife (and the wife’s lover) to institutionalize him. Doc’s investigation has barely begun before he stumbles across, and is stumbled upon, by a coterie of oddballs, all with their own problems. Skinhead bikers, the LAPD, a dentist tax-avoidance syndicate, and an ominous smuggling ring known as the Golden Fang all get linked together as Doc hazily maneuvers through some very far-out pathways indeed.
- The notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published “Inherent Vice,” his seventh novel, in 2009. Although they sell well and have cult followings, no Pynchon novel had previously been adapted for the screen, mainly because the author’s plots are too complex and confusing to fit the film format. Anderson had considered adapting “V” or “Mason & Dixon,” but found both impossible to translate into a coherent screenplay.
- According to Josh Brolin, Pynchon appeared somewhere in the film in a cameo, although this is difficult to confirm as the last known photograph of the author was clandestinely snapped in the early 1990s.
- Though filled with A-list actors and nominated for two Academy Awards, Inherent Vice only recouped $11 million worldwide of its $20 million budget.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: While being given a ride from LAPD headquarters, Doc Sportello notices the… mmm, thoroughness with which Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen attends to his frozen banana. The scene goes on for a while — and is odd in and of itself — but also gives a suggestion of the peculiar psychological relationship between the two.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Telephone paranoia; playboy dentist; moto panikako!
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Its overexposed colors and garish hippie costumes immediately summon the film’s era, creating an image somehow both sharp and blurred. Similarly, the movie travels along a bumpy, diversion-filled path toward an unexpectedly tidy conclusion. The combination of comedy and paranoia works well — this movie will leave you chuckling and, afterwards, slightly worried the next time your phone rings.
Official trailer for Inherent Vice
COMMENTS: Confusion descends upon the viewer early on in Inherent Vice, just after the informational screen title, “Gordita Beach, California 1970” sets the scene. Immediately the action (so-to-speak) begins, with laid-back Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) greeting a surprise visitor with a problem. The visitor: Shasta (Katherine Waterston), Doc’s ex-girlfriend. The problem: machinations on the part of some unsavory people to institutionalize “Mickey” Wolfmann, a real estate mogul, to prevent him from giving away his fortune. Soon the misaligned gears of Doc’s pot-addled brain creak into motion and he begins his search for, among others, members of a neo-Nazi biker gang, a supposedly dead session musician, and the Wolfmann himself—all while flirting around some troubling details from a years-old case involving the slippery free-agent /contract killer/baseball-bat enthusiast, Adrian Prussia.
You should be told up front that the description above really only touches at a part of what’s going on. The story is left intentionally vague (and at times, incredibly so). The end result of the film’s jumps and meanderings is to provide the viewer with a window into this world similar to Doc Sportello’s. He’s a man who is certainly intelligent, but has more of a feeling for situations as opposed to a full understanding of them. Paul Thomas Anderson went out of his way to make this movie hard to follow, forcing the viewer to rely on his intuition in the exact same way the protagonist does.
That said, Phoenix provides a hilarious Johnny-Depp-in-Fear-and-Loathing-meets-Dustin-Hoffman-in-The-Graduate performance. His counterpart, Lt. Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), is about as straight-laced, hippie-hating, civil-rights ignoring cop as you could hope for. The two men approach the same work in as different a manner as possible, but somehow share a special relationship and help each other out. This is no doubt in part due to Bjornsen’s horrible home life, a glimpse of which we only see late in the film. The detective is in a broken relationship and is himself probably near a breaking point. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a touching scene where Bjornsen and Doc share a joint and, at exactly the same time say to each other, “Listen. Sorry about last night. You? Why should you be sorry?” One can’t help but suspect that the straight-arrow, successful cop is jealous of the shaggy, lackadaisical P.I.
Paul Thomas Anderson dips heavily into a ’70s goo of establishment overreach, “Flower Power” disillusionment, and, shall we say, “eccentric” fashion. All the cops are paranoid, particularly about communist/black power/hippie groups (“Any gathering of three or more civilians is now considered a possible cult”, explains a patrol officer). There are FBI machinations. In the background, the Department of Justice monitors a private yacht called the Golden Fang, which is also the name of a drug cartel, and also the name of a syndicate for tax-dodging dentists (represented by the over-sexed, coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S., played by a frenetic Martin Short in a purple crushed-velvet suit). The film’s narrator sounds more like an astrologer, providing the audience with pertinent horoscopes for the coming scene. A mental institution, bearing the slogan “Straight is Hip,” is staffed by disarmingly kind doctors and houses drug users and a skinhead with—no, not a swastika—a “Hindu symbol meaning ‘All is Well'” tattooed on his face.
The story is convoluted, the main character’s dialogue muttered, and the narrator not entirely reliable. The over-exposed film stock makes much of this movie look like a vintage porno that’s been left out in the sun too long. Character histories and flash-backs/forwards/sideways further complicate an already hazy string of events. Mysteriously, all of this works; more mysteriously, all of this comes together nicely in the end. My advice is: watch it once to enjoy it; watch it a second time to understand it.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Paul Thomas Anderson has taken Thomas Pynchon’s 2007 novel about the death of the hippie counterculture and turned it, reasonably faithfully, into a surreally funny, anxious and beautiful film noir.”–Robbie Collin, The Telegraph (contemporaneous)
“‘Inherent Vice’ is an aggressively weird movie, which you should take not as a warning but as a compliment and an invitation to see it, to let its stoner vibes wash all over you.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)
Inherent Vice – Official Movie Site – Animated .gifs and an interactive character roster are two of the added-value features of Warner Brothers’ official Inherent Vice site
IMDB LINK: Inherent Vice (2014)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon – 9781594202247 – Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 “trailer” for the book
Pynchon’s Cameo, and Other Surrealities – New York Times piece on the film incorporating quotes from Paul Thomas Anderson, Josh Brolin and Joaquin Phoenix
Director Paul Thomas Anderson Talks ‘Inherent Vice’ – Video interview with Anderson by Meredith Danluck of Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson on Trying Not to ‘F*ck Up’ Adapting ‘Inherent Vice‘ – Anderson interview with Eric Kohn of Indiewire
NYFF Report: Joaquin Phoenix and Cast Helped Make ‘Inherent Vice’ a Noir-Nonsense Affair – Ethan Alter’s reprort for Yahoo incorporates quotes from Owen Wilson, Joanna Newsom, Jenna Malone, and Martin Short
10 Films To Watch Before You See Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’ – Indiewire suggests ten noirish companion pieces to Inherent Vice
List Candidate: Inherent Vice (2014) – G. Smalley’s original review of the film during its theatrical run
DVD INFO: As happens so often these days, Warner Brothers released Inherent Vicein a triple-threat package of a Blu-Ray/DVD/ Digital Copy (buy). It comes in one of those sleeved cases where the sleeve exactly mimics the information on the case it goes over. I’ve never quite understood why this extra layer is added, but then I suppose people do love their slip-covers on hardback novels. The transfer is very true to the source. Extras are scant, primarily consisting of three variants of a trailer (many more can be found online, if one is inclined to thoroughness), with only one slot left for a few brief deleted/extended scenes. If you’re buying this release, you’re buying it mostly for the movie.
Inherent Vice is also available digitally on-demand (rent or buy on-demand).