There was a point in the midst of Inherent Vice, PaulThomas Anderson’s latest examination of recent American history, that I began to wonder if he’d made the film just for me. I loved every single second of it, but listening to various (considerably younger) fellow viewers’ comments as I left the screening, realised just how much baggage you need to carry to withstand the two and a half hours of screen time. Dripping with authenticism and almost hermetic in its depiction of a very particular moment in the USA’s road to post-‘60s cynicism, Inherent Vice demands that you know your stuff, counter-culture and politics-wise, not to mention musically.
(I apologise wholeheartedly if that last paragraph sounded like some pompous way of saying I liked this film and therefore I know a lot of stuff and you will only like this film if you are clever like me. What I’m actually trying to say is that I liked this film so much that I want everyone to like it too, and I worry that it may be a little too niche for many peoples’ tastes.)
Thomas Pynchon’s typically character-rich, absurdist view of the West Coast in 1970 is both dreamily nostalgic (in a good way, says Anderson) for a lost era and the closest equivalent to Chandleresque as he ever got. The shaggy dog tale of Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a dope smoking P.I. in requisite khaki combat jacket, shades and sandals, simultaneously chasing a missing construction magnate, an ex-husband, a drug cartel and a lost love.
The oddest thing about Anderson’s film is that, for the first time that I can remember, it bears comparison with and references other films. Of course any circular tale filled with great cameos, stoner logic and an impenetrable mystery is going to make anyone think of The Big Leibowski, and the plot tangles give the whole piece a doper-grandson-of-Chandler dynamic. At about the halfway mark, pretty much as in The Big Sleep, you give up on any kind of grasp on who has done what to who. Apart from the other Altman/Chinatown/Long Goodbye etc. etc. allusions there’s a whole Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo section featuring Martin Short as the superbly deranged dentist, Dr. Rudy Batnoyd. And if that weren’t enough, here’s Benicio Del Toro… as a lawyer! This attorney is, however, an endearing marine law specialist with a taste in deep fried steak. Come to think of it, just about everyone in this film is in some way endearing. Even the villains are acceptably erudite.
Somewhere in between good and bad is, naturally, the policeman nemesis to Doc’s P.I.: Detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin (above), channeling his inner Tommy Lee Jones again. The love/hate hippie/pig relationship is superb, especially as half of their exchanges are by telephone, showing the hilarious juxtaposition of the straight and far out lifestyles of our protaganists. Other turns by Reece Witherspoon as Doc’s Deputy D.A. sort-of main squeeze; Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay, Doc’s ‘ex-old lady’ who leads him into the labyrinth, and even – wow- Eric Roberts(!) as the missing Mickey Wolfmann are all suitably on the money.
In tone (as you’ll undoubtedly expect if you’ve seen the trailer below) the film is Anderson’s lightest for years. It’s not the slapstick-fest you may be expecting from the trailer, but its central performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Doc contains a vast amount of physical comedy. Phoenix has always been a deeply physical actor, but here his facial mugging almost steals the show. An inveterate stoner’s habits mean that dialogue comes thick and…err, thick. More than one reviewer has pointed to one scene between Doc and Owen Wilson (as it turns out, the real point of the movie) as junky sax player and snitch, Coy Harlingen which is all but unintelligible. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, it’s appropriate that it’s the vibe which pervades the entirety which is the most wonderful thing. Not since Boogie Nights has the director been this jolly.
As mentioned above, the numerous Black Panther, Manson Family, Aryan Brotherhood, Vietnam, L.A. music scene, Nixon etc. references mean that maybe this is just a film set to entrance only the likes of me and my crazy ‘niche’ tastes. But I’d like to think not.
When it comes to the music, I can take or leave the Debussy-liteisms of Jonny Greenwood. It works just fine. But the other stuff is a whole heap of ‘60s and ‘70s goodness. Any film that opens with Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ and also features some Les Baxter already has me halfway there. But as Anderson has said in recent interviews: the real musical inspiration of Inherent Vice comes from Neil Young; in particular, his three post-Harvest era masterpieces. Two numbers (Harvest and Journey Through The Past) feature prominently in the soundtrack.
The yearning in Neil feels just right. If there was an NY album that Inherent Vice put me in mind of most, it was On The Beach. The mellow but wary-as-fuck, post-Manson killings vibe is all offset by endless sea and sunshine or twinkling beach front cafes and faux-medieval Topanga mansions filled with tanned ‘teeners’ as Shasta Fay describes them to Doc. But there’s already a sense that the good stuff happened long ago, there are too many memories, too many ex-old ladys, too much paranoia. The lost love does finally come home, but only to tell Doc that she’s not back. And the nemesis pops round to knock down his door, apologise and finally eat his stash. Bummer.
How much of this feeling is from Pynchon I have yet to discover. I feel the need to read it. Any regular readers will know that I raved about Anderson’s last work: The Master. And while Inherent Vice immediately resides inside me in a place that’s closer to my heart, that’s weighed against the fact that The Master had life-defining performances by Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann. Time will tell no doubt tell which film wins, but in the meantime, if you want to see one more film about the death of the hippie ideal, make it this one. It’s brilliant.
Inherent Vice is released in the UK on 30 January.