Thomas Pynchon clearly had fun writing his 2009 novel Inherent Vice about a stoned Private Investigator, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is visited by his ex-girlfriend, the wispy Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson) and enticed into investigating a plot to institutionalize her lover. The prose is playful, the story absurd and the goings on bizarre and Director Paul Thomas Anderson has stayed true to it in his adaptation. I won’t go into the plot in too much detail, it would take a while and I would probably confuse myself, but it somehow involves real estate, the Aryan Brotherhood, a mysterious boat, a crazy coke snorting dentist, a dead partner, a not dead junkie saxophonist, an FBI plot and a love story all narrated by the voice of reason, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) in her Californian drawl. Oh … and drugs, lots of drugs. The trick is, as Doc says, “Thinking comes later”.
Phoenix’s performance as Doc is definitely the highlight of the film. His timing and execution is impeccable. The laugh at loud moments are all his – an escaped scream at an inappropriate moment, a hand grasping for air as he’s knocked out, the ridiculous things he writes in his notebook, eyebrows that dance and a perm that gets wilder as the plot does. Doc can never quite believe that people talk to him at all, never mind throw him leads to all kinds of devious goings on, but he’s always happy to wing it, do some drugs, try to get his leg over and help people out. He is one of those rare characters that truly lives in a permanent state of spontaneity, but does so with an innocent and endearing quality.
Most of the supporting actors appear to be acting in their own movies like self obsessed people who think the world is only about them. Sauncho Smillax (Benicio Del Toro) gets it in that world weary way that only Del Toro can, his deadpan one liner’s are amusing, and his motivation simply to know more than anyone else. Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd is riding his own cocaine fuelled wave as well as anything in a skirt. Witherspoon as Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball is underused but seems to be interested only in sex, joints and the DA office. Owen Wilson as Coy Harlingen, is a solo saxophonist and heroin addict who has somehow found himself involved with the FBI and is supposed to be dead. As ever Wilson perfects the art of looking disappointed that no one either understands his story or the joke he just told. Somehow the movie ends up being about him, but as usual, no one really notices.
Shasta Fey is only ever mentioned in a whisper and that is how she appears on screen. Her tendency to moan instead of talk and the way she moves around as though the very air around her turns her on annoyed me as much as the way everyone said her name. However, I suspect that was the intention, she is like the wisp of a memory as it fades in the mind, something that human fingers cannot quite touch. Doc’s attempt to make her real may be reflected in a very uncomfortable love scene at an odd angle that I hope happened only in Doc’s mind. She blows in at the beginning and the end as if nothing happened in between, and perhaps it didn’t.
Bigfoot Bjomson played by Josh Brolin wants to be in his own cop movie both in the script and in the film. He seems to have perfected the art of uttering a multitude of words eloquently without actually saying anything at all. Bigfoot’s behaviour, although the polar opposite of Doc’s, is equally worrying, on the one hand Doc has given up any semblance of control over life, happy to creep about in the shadows and on the other Bigfoot is desperately trying to control all aspects of his life but succeeding in none and longs to be in the limelight.
The film is either a replica of a drug induced trip: fragmented memories which may or may not have happened, random people turning up out of nowhere, nightmarish come downs and sorting your shit out before starting the process all over again or a satire on the sobering up of America from the sybaritic sixties to the controlled corporate eighties.
The joy of a film like Inherent Vice is that there is always the implication that either none of it happened at all or that what actually happened and what the main character experiences are two different things. This leaves it open to interpretation and you can have fun deciding what happened and whether it means anything. It also means it is a film that you must watch more than once.
Movie geeks will love it, it is laced with intertextuality and cultural references and you could probably write a different review about it every time you watch it. Like Doc, I lost the plot half way into the movie and also my interest. It is slightly too long and the threads of the story become too entangled. Luckily, somehow it manages to unravel itself as the action quickens in time for a neat conclusion, only to be thrown back into the air at the very end. I actually said out loud, “what the fuck just happened?” It’s like going to a concert, drinking too much, missing the middle and sobering up towards the end before getting smashed again. It is one that will most likely improve after repeated viewings; I have changed my mind about it numerous times just writing this review.
Overall, I didn’t love everything about it but enjoyed the experience and will definitely watch it again.