(SPOILERS) I can quite see why Inherent Vice hasn’t been clutched to collective bosoms in the way some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous pictures have. It isn’t funny enough to be designated an all-out comedy (like The Big Lebowski), or intriguing enough to be termed a fully-fledged mystery (like Chinatown), too disinterested to be a commentary on any kind of times (like The Long Goodbye) and insufficiently whacked out to be celebrated as a intoxicated space ride (like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). But it’s definitely got something and, in Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry “Doc” Sportello, relishes a protagonist who may not be as instantly iconic as The Dude but is singularly memorable in his stoned well-meaning and good nature. A real hippie.
I haven’t always been Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest fan. I thought Boogie Nights was merely okay, and found Magnolia actively irritating. But both There Will Be Blood and The Master were rich, immersive experiences, ones that were rewarding and resonant. I don’t think Inherent Vice (ironically, given half the title) exerts the same grip; it’s too sedate in embracing its main character’s stoner ways and, ironically (again) given the reports of a loose and chaotic set, rather studied in its capturing of the period, but if you’re willing to go along for the rambling ride, with its frequent detours from the point and non-integral interludes, PTA’s adaptation (as Wikipedia calls it, a “stoner crime comedy-drama film”) of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is highly enjoyable.
Revolving around private investigator Doc’s looking into the case of a disappeared real estate developer (Mickey Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts), at the behest of his former girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterstone), whom he is still hung up on and who has been seeing Wolfmann, the plot spins off in multiple directions, some of them clues, others red herrings.
Shasta disappears, spurring Doc’s efforts. There’s Aryan Brotherhood member Glen Charlock, one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards who shows up dead, the rumoured intent of Wolfmann’s wife and lover to have Mickey sectioned, and the mysterious Golden Fang, a syndicate of dentists, a boat, or an international drug smuggling ring (or all three). Then there’s his second (or third, since the second is Tariq Khalil’s – Michael K Williams – request to find Charlock, who owes him money; “You see, outside of Glen, I ain’t never liked the company of Nazis”), to find the husband of recovering heroin addict Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone).
En route, Doc is interrogated by the FBI (“There’s no need to be insulting” responds one, when Doc suggests they are in the same business) and continually hassled by nemesis Detective Christian F Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who alternatively confides in Doc, sets him up, makes worrisome innuendos or gets him to do his dirty work (in respect of loan shark Adrian Prussia and his connection to Bigfoot’s former partner).
Seen through Doc’s heightened gauze, the plot only attains anything approaching urgency on those occasions when he is in direct danger (the sequence in which Prussia and his lackey intend to administer an overdose to Doc proves him surprisingly capable, and is the only point where the picture enters into straightforward thriller territory). The narration from Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) emphasises this, a seductively drowsy piece of half-spun wisdom somewhere between off True Romance/Badlands and The Stranger from The Big Lebowski (“These were perilous times, astrally speaking, for dopers”).
Like the Dude, Doc continually wanders haplessly into far-out and dangerous situations, navigating them in a permanently half-baked state. Half of what he writes on his notepad is gibberish (“Paranoia Alert” is his response to the synchronicity of Kalil presenting a case connected to Wolfmann) and at various points he is high on laughing gas and snorting coke like a demon, just to modify his drugs regimen. Oh, and he gets shot full of PCP.
That said, apart from a sequence in which Doc is hit on the head and we see Dude-esque visuals, Anderson is restrained on the whole hallucinatory state, allowing the larger-than-life characters to do the work for him. Visually this has the kind of hazy ‘70s sun-bleached vibe you’d expect (complete with burnt orange miniskirts and green telephones), and Johnny Greenwood furnishes an appropriately psychedelic score, like The Doors if they were doing background music.
For Doc’s misadventures, the journey’s the thing rather than the destination, so it may not be surprising that some found Inherent Vice confusing (I have to say that even with three nominal investigations, it’s easier than many detective pictures to keep a track off; I expect it depends how stoned you are when viewing it). Doc’s inability to move on from Shasta makes her a hippy era femme fatale, one who can show up and wrap him round her little finger (or any part of her, depending on how disrobed she is at the time), and with whom the nominal happy ending (“This doesn’t mean we’re back together”) might be regarded as a reflection of the finite and on-the-turn hippy dream (this is 1970, and Manson-type cults are repeatedly referenced, while the down side of the liberation of drugs is emphasised when it is noted that Doc is one of the few who doesn’t use heroin). Alternatively, this could just be Doc’s own fantasy (we see Shasta only with him once she returns, and she’s all over him).
Waterston is very good, but her character is little more than a cypher, a means to move the plot and add colour to Doc’s motivations and illusions. The primary relationship is with Brolin’s Renaissance detective Bigfoot, a flat-topped lieutenant with “an evil twinkle in his eye that says civil rights violations”. His uptight fury at the liberated generation reminded me a little of his character in Milk, just as a fully-fledged caricature this time. It’s Doc’s responses to Bigfoot that humanise him (when he is losing it in the last scene, and Doc sheds a tear; “I’m not your brother”; “No, but you need a keeper”), or the scene where Mrs Bjornsen starts haranguing Doc on the phone about the therapy Bigfoot has to endure as a result of dealing with him; Bigfoot’s a man whose world no longer makes any sense, and is crumbling around him.
The heart of the picture comes in respect to f the Harlingen case, though, and Doc’s intent to get informer Coy back with his wife and child. Owen Wilson is perfect for this kind of role, almost too perfect, while Jena Malone as his matter-of-fact wife (discussing the ravaging effects of heroin and her false teeth) is equally strong. There’s a scene between Coy and Doc at a party, in partial code, that forms one of the picture’s fitfully wholly engrossing moments (“Are you saying the US is somebody’s mom?”). This is the difference between the precision of the Coens and the coasting, freewheeling approach of PTA, where not everything has to count. Likewise, Doc’s conversation with Bigfoot concerning Robert Prussia is precise and holds the attention, and its with these kinds of moment that the picture is at is best, as we integrate the fractured information fed to the doper.
PTA, with Cheech and Chong and Furry Freak Brothers as touchstones, ensures there’s a healthy vein of absurdity coursing through the picture. It’s often very funny (“He perished in a trampoline accident, didn’t he?”); Doc’s slalom entering the police station so as not to get beaten on; his scream on seeing baby Harlingen photo; the mother and daughter drugs couriers; the gloriously unhinged performance from Martin Short as Dr Rudy Blatnoyd (the name itself is bliss) a coke fiend predator-come-shrink (“Doctor, I think there’s a problem with the couch in your office. And bring that bottle” instructs his female assistant; Blatnoyd follows her, his trousers around his ankles).
Anderson’s willingness to indulge means some of the broader, goofier stuff doesn’t quite work (Bigfoot’s phallic food oral fixation is overdone in the way an 14-year-old would probably find hilarious), while the offices of Voorhes-Krueger is the kind of cheap reference you’d expect from an Adam Sandler fan. Likewise, his staging of last supper with pizza is kind of visually puerile; the sort of thing Kevin Smith would do if he had any directorial ability.
The cast is magnificent, top to bottom. I don’t know if Robert Downey Jr. would have been better as Doc, but he certainly isn’t missed. Reese Witherspoon has some fun as the Assistant D.A. sometime girlfriend of Doc, Benicio del Toro plays a relatively sober attorney (unlike in Fear and Loathing), Martin Donovan, Eric Roberts, and Serena Scott Thomas all cameo to memorable effect.
Inherent Vice (apparently: a property of or defect in a physical object that causes it to deteriorate due to a fundamental instability of its components, so it may make the item an unacceptable risk, and the insurer may not be liable to a claim if they haven’t been forewarned about it) definitely deserves its place on the many Top 10 lists of 2014 (including mine) but I’m not yet sure whether I’ll come to regard it as an all-time classic. It’s a picture that needs to percolate through repeat visits, so perhaps so. I was fairly certain the first time I saw The Big Lebwoski of its longevity, and that one took a few years to catch fire in cultdom. Certainly, it shares box office failure with the Coen Brothers’ picture, so if that’s any testament to merit it ought to be some consolation to Anderson.