It sounded like staid material in 2009 for author Thomas Pynchon when he set a detective story called Inherent Vice in 1970, a time when Flower Power had faded, in Los Angeles, a city in the state that once defined the hippie movement. But Pynchon focuses on creating a marvelous morality tale with great humor and witty layers of experience, perfect for the author known for his postmodernist writing. The time period captures a mythic moment in American history. Ideas of utopia and slogans like “make love not war” that once defined a generation had been overshadowed by the hedonism of Woodstock, the horror of the Kent State shootings, the quagmire of Vietnam, not to mention the Manson murders, which are often referenced in the text. The post-war product of the baby boom were coming of age into an era of idealism and were then suddenly hit with disillusionment. Look up the definition of the phrase “inherent vice,” and it seems a perfect title for a book seeking to examine the transition between the ideal 1960s and the grim reality of the early 1970s.
Now director Paul Thomas Anderson has adapted Inherent Vice, becoming the first director to take on Pynchon, an author whose works have often been called “dense” or “complex.” Working for the first time from a novel instead of an original script, Anderson takes Pynchon’s story and enriches it. After his amazing 2013 movie The Master (The Master harnesses cinema’s power to maximal effect), the auteur once again takes on another mythic era of America to offer another superficial take on the cultural landscape that actually shrouds a compelling tribute to people looking for purpose in the face of nihilism.
Also for a second time in a row, Anderson is working with arguably the greatest American actor of the 21st century, Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private detective with a serious marijuana habit. Sporting momentous mutton chops to rival Hugh Jackman’s in the X-Men flicks, Phoenix gives Doc an endearing bumbling character that sometimes feels like a tribute to Jeff Bridges’ Dude in The Big Lebowski. Tasked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to intervene in the looming kidnapping and institutionalization of her current lover, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), by his wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), Doc finds himself soon over his head. The story twists and turns as more people enter the picture and Doc takes notes in his little pad with big letters like “paranoia alert” and “something Spanish.”
Throughout the film Doc suffers beatings and uncalled for detentions at the hands of his hippie-hating nemesis LAPD Lt. Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a marvelously intense Josh Brolin). As the film’s most dynamic character, Bigfoot is not just a straight-edge policeman with a disdain for hippies. He also fancies himself a renaissance man who moonlights as a bit actor on TV shows and even the real estate commercials for Wolfmann that slyly lampoon hippie speak while celebrating it. Wearing a bad Afro wig and sunglasses, he tells Doc, “Right on” from a TV screen before — in a moment of magical realism referring to Doc’s high — his face fills the screen, and he says, “What’s up, Doc?” At every turn, Bigfoot tries to undermine Doc or even arrest him. However, he is also an ally, like a big brother beating on a younger sibling. Though married with children, in a sly, comic dramatic twist, the film later reveals Bigfoot hardly has any love at home, and he and Doc have a bond that eclipses their differences. It’s one of the greatest relationships you will see in the movies this year, and it gives this byzantine comedy its warm heart.
The film features voiceover narration by Sortilège, (a pleasantly benign Joanna Newsom), a friend of Doc’s who provides the first cue in how this film presents its themes through its characters. The film opens with a stationary shot down the nondescript alley to Doc’s beach shack he calls home. The title card reads, “Gordita Beach, California. 1970.” It appears to be sunrise and the only thing on the soundtrack is the sound of the surf. Then there’s a cutaway to a woman’s face backlit by brilliant sunlight. As if born of the California sun, a golden glow shrouding her blond head of hair, Sortilège sets up the film’s story. She says Shasta “came along the alley and up the back stairs the way she always used to.” It’s a surprise visit after over a year-long absence from his life. Though Shasta’s entrance harkens to the past, somewhere around 1968/69, this is not the same woman. She arrives a changed woman “all in flat land gear … looking just like she swore she would never look.” While Sortilège appears in a halo of light, Shasta sneaks in and emerges from the nocturnal shadows with a whisper.
Things do change in this world, as Sortilège notes after Doc and a friend join her to share some pizza and beer. She gets vibes that Doc’s mind is racing about the unexpected visit of Shasta, a former intimate who had transformed in a way he never anticipated, so she recommends he do a little change. “Change your hair, change your life.” When he asks her what he might do with his hear, she suggests, “follow your intuition.” Then there’s a smash cut to a close up of Doc’s face with his hair in twists to enhance the curls of his already curly hair.
Change and surface presentation are a big part of Inherent Vice. Everybody is someone else below the surface or in a state of flux — well, maybe everyone except our protagonist Doc. It’s a role that won’t stand out much for Phoenix, which is a shame because he is terrific as a man caught in stagnation yet hoping for some connection. Some will find the developments in Doc’s case confusing as characters enter and leave the narrative. Though other characters come in and out of the picture, there is always something unforgettable about them. Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife) plays Doc’s alert secretary, a very aware being never short observation. Owen Wilson plays a musician lost in his own myth, and there’s even Martin Short who plays a dentist with a coke habit, a taste for young, runaway girls and nefarious connections to a drug cartel called “The Golden Fang.” I’ve left out about seven to 10 other import recurring characters. But it doesn’t matter. As the film falls further down a rabbit hole of narrative that will confuse many hoping to keep the story straight, the viewer should keep in mind that this is a detective story with a pothead hippie as the protagonist.
Beyond dialogue and characterization, as ever with Anderson, he never misses a chance to define his characters visually. Though The Master had an intensely measured pace and a precise mise-en-scène, consistently shot with an exquisite and meticulous quality by Mihai Malaimare Jr., Anderson has called back Robert Elswit to photograph his vision, and the result is not only wonderfully evocative of ‘70s era TV and movies but also speaks to the film’s themes of the unknown change ahead. Much of the camera movement is handheld, and many scenes are shot against the light. On the other hand, there are scenes deeply saturated by shadow and darkness, especially as the film barrels through some more nerve-racking moments for Doc, as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble with more dangerous characters, from Aryan brotherhood bruisers to drug dealers connected with The Golden Fang.
As ever with Anderson, the music is brilliantly curated. The choice early in the film to not use some tired, overly familiar pop song from the era but an underground hit by the Krautrock band Can is inspired. I don’t say this because I’m a big Krautrock fan. The song, in this case “Vitamin C,” though not entirely accurate to the era (it was released in 1972) has deeper resonance because it represents a new form of music born of a need to revolt against the establishment, even if it came about in Germany. It also helps that it’s a good tune, abstract yet catchy, involving enough standard rock instruments and a chirpy organ to be cool but quirky.
Anderson has also once again hired Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to provide a score for the film. Greenwood provides a fantastic, sometimes romantic soundtrack that’s very aware of the era it’s representing, a sort of mix of Neu!, Soft Machine and Ennio Morricone. His music either features strings and oboe or quietly grooving rock instruments. It’s spacey sometimes, and other times it’s pastoral. As with the more subtle, earthy camera work of Inherent Vice, the music, from songs to score, is not as intrusive as it was in The Master. As great as the score for that film was, Inherent Vice is a movie concerned with a different tone, after all, something much lighter and less intense. Again, it all fits the theme of flux and an obscured core defying clear comprehension, reflective of the era and the people struggling in it.
Much as I love the deliberate, controlled artistry of The Master, even more so than this loose-limbed film, Anderson proves he is in terrific control of his approach, and it serves the story and it’s deeper concerns very well. Inherent Vice actually features some of the most hilarious moments in an Anderson film since 1997’s Boogie Nights, another film where Anderson explored the dark side of the 1970s. Both films tangle with humor, from slapstick to witty dialogue and an ironic sense of discontent not really apparent to the film’s characters. It’s ironic, but it all culminates with great affection for the film’s hero and even his nemesis, Bigfoot. They are this film’s terrific beating heart. Change is inevitable, just go with that flow and enjoy the ride… man.
Inherent Vice runs 148 minutes and is Rated R (expect drug use throughout, graphic sexuality, cursing and several violent encounters). It opens pretty much everywhere today, Jan. 9. Warner Bros. provided a DVD screener for awards consideration last year.