It’s 1970 and in Los Angeles the hippie dream is slowly collapsing under the weight of the Manson murders and of government fuelled social paranoia. In the fictional town of Gordita Beach, stoner private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is hired by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to investigate a case that will force him to face the ‘inherent vice’ that taints L.A. souls during the last days of a fading dream. What starts as an ordinary investigation on Shasta’s new lover and real estate magnate Micky Wolfman quickly spirals out of control as Arian Brotherhood bikers, Black Panther militants, a mysterious crime/dentist syndicate known only as the Golden Fang, FBI agents, an infamous LAPD detective and an undercover saxophonist working for the US government enter the picture, thickening the fog of pot and paranoia in which the case was drenched in from the very beginning.
Choosing to adapt Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel) is not a job for the faints of heart and Anderson delves into this psychedelic noir comedy with the full force of someone who has fully understood what makes Pynchon’s novels so fascinating. Those looking for a clear and defined story will probably leave the cinema puzzled and unsatisfied. Inherent Vice does not follow the classic three act structure and Doc’s investigation is constantly driven off-course by the myriad of characters he encounters and by his own pot-fuelled paranoia.
As we learn from the hilarious notes that Doc takes during his investigation, even the main character has troubles following the ever-shifting plot that unfolds in front of him. Anderson’s film is not a story to be followed, but rather something to be experienced alongside Doc. The slurred and slang-filled lines of dialogue are hard to understand (as a non-native English speaker who has read most of Pynchon’s work I got about 60% of what was being said at all times), but there’s a joyous sense of energy and rhythm that transpires from Anderson’s chaotic and free approach to storytelling that keeps you hooked to the screen for the whole duration of the film.
When words are not enough, the cinematography of Robert Elswit (long time collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson) steps in to drive us across the rapidly changing urban landscape of 1970s Los Angeles. Bulldozed neighbourhoods, run down apartments, the foggy docks of noir tradition and the aseptic offices of the establishment are rendered in washed out colours that turn the city into a faded postcard. A reminiscence of a dream that is slowly fading in collective memory, photographed in beautiful 35mm film.
The huge ensemble of characters includes big names like Josh Brolin, who plays Doc’s ‘nemesis’ Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, and Benicio del Toro as attorney Sauncho Smilax but the big star of the show is without a doubt Joaquin Phoenix. Doc might look like a mix between your classic hard-boiled detective and ‘The Dude’ from The Big Lebowski, but the lines on his face and the lost gaze that traverse his eyes for the whole film are not just a result of him being the stoner he is. Far from being a caricature of a private investigator, Doc is someone who has coped with loss through a sad sense of humour. Phoenix’s performance strikes the right cord and provides us with a balanced portrait that manages to be funny while never falling into ‘cartoonish’ in a film that revels in absurd and sometimes grotesque characters.
Inherent Vice is an incoherent and chaotic film. It drags on for a bit too long and can be quite challenging for an unprepared viewer. Yet, this is precisely the reason why I loved it so much. At a time in which most directors follow pre-determined narrative paths to ensure that people will “get it”, Paul Thomas Anderson brings us something that is not restrained by such conventions. This pastiche of different genres revels in its extended and sometimes incomprehensible conversations, in characters bigger than life and in the stellar performance of the actors that portray them. Doc’s investigation in the film is disjointed and protracted. It starts nowhere and ends in the same place, mirroring Doc’s attempt to hold on to a love affair that is doomed to fail like it has before and the end of a social and political promise that never realised.
Inherent Vice is a heartfelt and courageous adaptation of the novel of a writer that was long considered ‘inadaptable’. Anderson’s film has guts, heart and brain and finds his strengths in what would be considered by any Hollywood ‘Scriptwriting for Dummies’ course the ‘inherent vices’ of an incomprehensible story. Anderson plays with genre and filmic conventions and leaves the viewer dazed and confused without resorting to visual tricks, but relying instead on a barrage of words and thoughts. This truly is filmmaking of a higher order and I can’t wait to watch the film again and again to delve further into the hilarious, melancholic, paranoid and chaotic world of Doc.