If I ever needed a psychedelic trip without turning to drugs, then watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice would do the trick. Anderson’s latest film feels like a synthesis of Boogie Nights and The Master, borrowing the wit and slapstick comedy of the former while retaining the abstraction and intellectual masturbation of the latter. To attempt to solve and decipher the hidden properties of Inherent Vice would be an exercise in futility, at least in the first viewing. As There Will Be Blood and The Master have already proven, Anderson is accustomed to taking us to the deep end of the pool and pushing us off. We can either cling to nothing and sink or just go with the flow and float along to the rhythm of the waves. This is especially true with Anderson’s seventh feature film.
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Inherent Vice is set in Los Angeles in the 1970s. It follows Doc Sportello, a hippie stoner private detective with a bed of shaggy hair and a mutton chop that devours his face. In another great performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Doc is an unstable but principled detective who means it when he throws up the peace sign. Doc is instantly given an assignment when his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), pays him a visit. Now the girlfriend of Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a local real estate mogul, Shasta wants to stymie Mickey’s wife and her lover’s plan to send him to the loony bin. She is quite suspicious considering she offers very little information regarding her motivation. Sortilege (Joanna Newsome), Doc’s associate, the narrator, and possibly a figment of Doc’s imagination, suspects Shasta is doing it for “love.” But what is love anyway? Soon Doc is flooded with investigations that somehow tie in with the Wolfmann case.
Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) is a radical black man who assigns Doc the task of locating Wolfmann’s white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood bodyguard because they both share a vested interest. Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former heroin addict, hires Doc to find her missing husband, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a jazz saxophonist caught in a cult. There is Jade (Hong Chau), who warns Doc about the Golden Fang, possibly the cult Coy is involved in. There is Doc’s marine lawyer, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), who claims the Golden Fang is a boat formerly owned by anti-Communists. Or as we later learn, the Golden Fang could also be a huge heroin cartel housed in a building shaped like a fang, which also serves as a dental office for former addicts. As Anderson says, “The Golden Fang […] is just a depository for whatever enrages you.” If The Master is an examination on religion, then Inherent Vice is a study on secret societies.
There is Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), an assistant D.A. and Doc’s main squeeze, who has no qualms about separating her professional life with her love life. Finally, there is also a storyline involving Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short) and his teenage girlfriend Japonica (Sasha Pieterse), which is not entirely part of the larger narrative. Inherent Vice is a kaleidoscope, where the bombardment of colorful personalities and kinetic narrative display a beautiful picture without ever congealing to form a concise thought. This film is as character driven as any film can be.
Even with all these personalities, the most fascinating relationship is between Doc and Lieutenant Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played memorably by Josh Brolin. Bigfoot is a hippie-detesting cop with a haircut that would make Johnny Unitas proud. Although Doc and Bigfoot are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, they too share a united front in unraveling this mystery. Their relationship is not dissimilar to the one in The Master between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, where extreme violence and personal idiosyncrasies spiritually links them in an almost queer manner. Doc is often subjugated to LAPD brutality but never retaliates. Also consider one of the funniest scenes in the film when Doc watches in awe and disgust as Bigfoot sucks on a frozen chocolate banana. It is these little private moments that could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
While what I may have described so far seems like a mind-blowing acid trip, there is a sense that Anderson never loses control of his material. Shot by Robert Elswit, who also worked on There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice was filmed on 70mm, and it is a beauty. Consider the Last Supper image, one of the film’s most memorable ones. Not since Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece Viridiana has there ever been such a perfect framing and ironic reference of the Last Supper, but I digress. Anderson creates a warm and cold palette that encapsulates the contradictions of Southern California. The costumes and set dressings hit the right balance, unlike the heavy-handed American Hustle. However, this does not mask the central problem of the film. Unlike the classic noirs set in LA, such as Chinatown, the city is a relatively absent character in Inherent Vice. Whether it is a financial constraint or aesthetic decision, the film consists primarily of close-ups and medium shots. Considering the film is set in a politically and culturally charged moment in time, right after Tet and Altamont and the Manson family, we do not feel the fleeting, dreamy, and harrowing essence of Southern California. Instead, in the veins of The Godfather, we get an extremely closed world.
We can now consider Paul Thomas Anderson as the quintessential American auteur. Name me another filmmaker out there who is as heavily invested in the beautiful marvels, tragic flaws, and glaring contradictions of the United States as he is. Anderson has tackled head-on the many facets of the Americana: the entertainment industry, familial institution, capitalism and corporation, post-war trauma and religion, cults and secret societies, rebellion, etc. While Inherent Vice seems like a slight departure from his previous two films, Anderson’s abstract notions and concepts are still an attempt at meditation and lamentation. Only this time he uses slapstick comedy as a looking glass. Considering the absurdity of our current social climate, perhaps Anderson is on to something here.
3.5 / 4 stars