Director and writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson
Runtime: 148 mins
When adapting a book like Inherent Vice, it begs the question of just how to translate the often downright confusing nature of Thomas Pynchon’s writing to the big screen. The constant stream of strange characters to keep track of and the paranoia-addled worlds he creates, where everything is a conspiracy within a conspiracy, are often seemingly meant to deliberately baffle the reader. Paul Thomas Anderson succeeds here in retelling this story, a psychedelic romp through Los Angeles at the tail end of the hippie era, retaining the spirit of the source material whilst making it more digestible for a larger audience. Anderson’s admiration for Pynchon is clear (the elusive author is rumoured to make a cameo appearance somewhere in the film), and yet it never feels like he is completely enthralled by it, adding his own flair and chopping off any fat from the original. Quotes from the novel are intermittently narrated over their respective scenes, giving the film a philosophical bent on top of its undeniable sense of fun and humour that is both low-brow and intelligent. Inherent Vice has garnered ample comparisons to the Coen brother’s cult classic The Big Lebowski, similar in that they both follow a perennially stoned lead character through LA’s underbelly and into conflict with The Man, although perhaps with less bowling in the former.
The plot follows Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix), an aging hippy turned private investigator, awoken one lazy evening at the beach by an ex-lady friend named Shashta (Katherine Waterston) who approaches him with a missing persons case, her new boyfriend billionaire real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) having vanished. An ostensibly straight-forward case becomes evermore convoluted as Doc encounters a cast of oddballs, hip and square alike, and begins to unveil a greater conspiracy at hand, all pervaded by an illusive syndicate and omnipresent evil throughout, known as the Golden Fang. The constant switch of trajectory may feel sometimes jarring to the viewer, but this is what gives the film its beauty, immersing you in a story where those involved are themselves often left scratching their heads. Doc is accompanied through much of his snooping by his dimwitted stoner partner Denis, and wanna-be celebrity cop Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Brolin), Doc’s antithesis and constant pain-in-the-butt throughout. Old habits die hard, and Doc goes through much of the story in a marijuana fog, often doing more to accentuate the paranoid climate of Manson-era Southern California.
Brilliant as always, Phoenix plays a protagonist that is eminently likable in contrast to all the suits and assholes he must wade through, trading his doe-eyed performance in Her for a red-eyed stoner gaze. Other familiar faces include Joanna Newsom, playing the role of Doc’s wise old lady, and Wilson’s role as Coy Harligen, an officially dead surf-rock sax player who shows up throughout the story and who Doc is tasked with bringing home by his ex-junky wife. Reese Witherspoon is in here as well, playing a part-time straight-laced lawyer and part-time hippie. One particularly stand-out role is Martin Short’s Dr. Rudy Blantoyd, a cocaine-snorting eccentric dentist, who reveals that not even oral hygiene is safe from from the all-encompassing conspiracy.
Marvellously scored by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, Inherent Vice is by turns hilarious, evocative and cool. Beneath the film’s playful antics however, a sadder story is being told, one of the death of a certain kind of idealism and the drug that brought much of the hippie movement down, here lighting a single candle to the 60s and its rebels.