You could make an entire film out of Joaquin Phoenix’s reaction shots, and Paul Thomas Anderson has nearly done just that. Playing a PI, Larry “Doc” Sportello, who smokes copious amounts of weed to maintain karmic equilibrium in the midst of the turmoil of post-60s Los Angeles, Phoenix registers a stoned surprise when, out of nowhere, his character’s long-lost love materializes in front of him, needing his help. Shasta Fay Hepworth embodies the idea of inherent vice (in the parlance of maritime law, risky cargo that cannot be insured) and, of course, Doc is pulled into her orbit.
The other significant woman in Doc’s life is Sortilège, who serves as friend, spiritual advisor, and narrator. Played by Joanna Newsom, who delivers every line of her dialogue as a spacey siren song (Newsom has made a few of the more essential records of this decade, including the epic Have One on Me four years ago), she allows Anderson to keep the philosophical feel of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, on which the film is based. Openly admired by Anderson, Pynchon’s writing sets the film’s tone: Southern California noir as a cosmic joke. Thanks also to Newsom, Anderson can set up key scenes economically, thus being able to dramatize Pynchon’s spiraling narrative in a running time of 148 minutes.
In an ideal world, this film would be hailed as a brilliant model for Hollywood filmmakers: a thoughtful screenplay that creates an imaginative experience in a few hours (no need to waste time and effort on a sequel), close attention to casting, and cinematography that gives a faded beauty to each scene. Instead, Inherent Vice has been met with grumbling about the supposedly difficult-to-follow plot and the, at times, hard-to-hear dialogue. Perhaps some critics are too used to the unquestioned way in most films that plot and dialogue is always clear, as opposed to how people in real life act and talk—especially those clearly under the influence.
FYI, I didn’t watch the film high (although some of my fellow watchers definitely did). But I can appreciate the sympathetic magic the fragmented romance between Doc and Shasta generates in moments set to Neil Young’s heartsick “Harvest” and yearning “Journey Through The Past.” This does lighten the mood of Pynchon’s novel somewhat; more importantly, it demonstrates why Phoenix is perfect for the lead role: no one can express regret like he can, nor wild abandon (necessary for the action sequence later in the film).
Of course, the flipside to Doc’s “doper’s dream” is the nightmare of paranoia. The LAPD really doesn’t like Doc, especially his nemesis, Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Wholly devoid of principle, he uses Doc as an instrument of his revenge for the loss of his partner: unlike The Long Goodbye (1973), to which Inherent Vice has been compared, Doc is never out for vengeance. As Bigfoot, Josh Brolin plays his character with a sense of misguided honor that makes him a comic heavy—or as Sortilège might say, a “total bummer” in Doc’s life.
Again taking its lead from Pynchon, the film gets off to a strong start, boosted by the hypnotic drive of “Vitamin C” by Can, then slows down in the middle scenes, before a finale that, while verging on happy, carries a serious weight. Doc turns down a big payoff, but his idealism is shown to matter relatively little as the ground has been bought and sold beneath his feet: the battle for the Eden of Los Angeles has been won by greedy real-estate developers in cahoots with the right-wing politicians ready to take control of California, following Richard Nixon’s rise to power.
The bongwater-soaked mood of the film, granted, may be reminiscent of The Big Lebowski (1998), but the two films could not be more different in philosophical perspective. If the message of The Big Lebowski can be summed up as “Fuck it. Let’s go bowling,” then Inherent Vice asks us to meditate on loss in its many forms. Doc takes this message to heart, and it is perhaps his appreciation throughout the film for what he has lost that allows him the hope, regardless of how fleeting it may be, for a future with Shasta.
Much more could be said about the film, and probably will: Anderson has given his backers the gift that keeps on giving, a product that will have massive DVD sales and late-night showings as an almost assured cult hit.
As for the Oscars, pretty much forget it. The Academy is far more worried about encouraging prestige films as a priority for studios to keep making (regardless of filmmakers’ best intentions in tackling major historical issues), than to seriously consider a film that insists, with all of the insolence of an ethical/political position that screams “Just Say Yes!”, on looking forward.
One thing I think is certain: Anderson has cemented his reputation as a visionary operating on the Hollywood fringes. His resilience is admirable considering what tends to happen to directors like him (for example, see Francis Ford Coppola), but as a certain Beatle might say, he seems happy to “carry that weight.”