Slapstick and despair
A disclaimer: I refuse to remain rational and objective about my cosmic love for Paul Thomas Anderson’s paranoid doper fantasia Inherent Vice. From the moment that the neon green title flashed on the screen and Can’s “Vitamin C” pulsated on the soundtrack, this movie and I located the same karmic thermal. I want to frolic about in a giant pile of this film, like Dorothy Gale in the poppy field. I want to roll up, smoke, snort, shoot up, and scarf down an entire tray of Inherent Vice. I want to revel in its sun-blasted slapstick and paranoid despair, to soak up its gloomy and intoxicating vision of post-Manson Los Angeles as Paradise Lost.
To many other viewers, this shaggy-dog detective story will offer only a maddeningly impenetrable text and far too much mumbling—Inherent Vice stands to be the most divisive Paul Thomas Anderson film in a career not exactly devoted to consensus-building (remember that Anderson’s most broadly accessible effort to date has been a love letter to the 1970s porn industry). In most of the red herring-heavy mysteries that Inherent Vice draws from, the ever-growing pile of plot twists usually makes the story inscrutable by the third act; here, we are already playing catch-up by the time Joanna Newsom’s phantasmic narrator Sortilège finishes her first sentence.
But what inspired inscrutability, and what a strange and wonderful world to get lost in! We are confused, but only because Inherent Vice is a film about confusion, a “we blew it, Billy” drug-haze satire of counterculture commodification. Out of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Anderson constructs an equal-parts daffy and melancholy milieu of hippies, burnouts, cop actors, drug-dealing dentists, undercover saxophone players, heroin babies and pussy-eater specials.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as the stoned-out-of-his-gourd private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello. As the film opens, Doc is awoken from his usual stupor by the appearance of his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (a heartbreaking Katherine Waterston). She lays “some heavy combination of face ingredients on Doc,” as well as a story about her missing land-developer lover and the mysterious forces that may be threatening her life. Doc pursues the case, and with his gentle nature and bong-rattled comprehension skills, he makes for a perfect noir patsy. No matter how lost we are in the narrative, Doc is always a little more lost, never more so than when the frazzled ends of the mystery occasionally fit together.
Anderson constructs Inherent Vice as a succession of two-person verbal encounters, sometimes presenting separate square-offs within the same shot. It’s practically the opposite of the eager, open-kneed visual invitation of Boogie Nights, and yet austerity has never looked more sumptuous. Working with his longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit (he also shot this year’s Nightcrawler, a more modern vision of the Los Angeles underbelly), Anderson visualizes the 1969 San Fernando Valley as a cross between a folk-rock album cover and a gas-mask hallucination.
With their many absentee fathers, compromised artists, robber baron capitalists, and would-be messiahs, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson portray the California Dream as an oft-repeated fall from grace of Biblical proportions. All pinned to the wall and linked together with an intricate series of colored strings, the Anderson oeuvre begins to form an alternate-history book of Southern California as spoiled paradise, stretching from the oil field power struggles in There Will Be Blood to the millennium apocalypse anxieties of Magnolia, and now the “square is hip” conspiracy at the heart of Inherent Vice.
More than anything, Inherent Vice is an acting feast, from Benicio del Toro as a cocktail-swilling maritime lawyer to Josh Brolin as a civil-rights-hating cartoon cop, and even the most minor characters feel fully realized. Phoenix is a magnetic mumbler, and he crafts some marvelous physical comedy—in one scene, Doc is cracked on the back of the head, and instinctively turns to throw an ineffectual punch as he falls to the ground. It’s as though Doc is so drug-addled that it takes him an extra second to realize he’s already unconscious. Inherent Vice has a similar lingering effect—for all its dizzy detachment, the film packs an insidious emotional wallop, one that may not be felt until well after impact.