Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson (2014)
The stupendous Paul Thomas Anderson leaves behind the dirt, booze and chilly tones of There Will Be Blood and The Master to bring this, the first ever Thomas Pynchon adaptation, to the screen. Inherent Vice, which has been jokingly referred is as Pynchon light, is a perpetually stoned meandering series of dead ends and alleyways for one Larry “Doc” Sportello (an incredible Joaquin Phoenix); A lonely pothead private eye sucked into a baffling case by his lost love, the mysterious Shasta Fay Hepworth (an economically and brilliant performance from Katherine Waterston).
Inherent Vice is a film which demands multiple viewings (three now for me) and marks another perfect picture (six on the run) for perhaps America’s greatest director. If money, religion and brotherly love and hate were the themes and currency of his last two works then here misinformation and confusion is key; A mish-mash of cases and stories intermingle like the haze of smoke in the LA sunset capturing the end of the 1960s; Endless characters with excellent names spin Doc around and around under the watchful eye of a hard-nosed narc, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a goofing and fantastic Josh Brolin).
We are dragged along through the craziness on an homage to the sun-kissed, LA-noir of Robert Altman or Roman Polanski, with hints of the slapstick pang of the Coen brothers twisting the tone. Songwriter and bona fide genius Joanna Newsom lends the film a tender voice-over which is just hippy enough to work with Anderson’s script lurching from sadness to sheer nutty delight. Nazis, bikers, dentists and even a maritime lawyer (Benicio del Toro) make Inherent Vice as barmy as you’d expect from Pynchon and a real refreshing turn for Anderson, making the strangest “noir” in recent memory.
Phoenix’s Sportello is not quite Eliot Gould or Jack Nicholson (or even Jeff Bridges‘ un-unquotable The Dude); He comes complete with an immediate sense of melancholy and loss and that’s what Inherent Vice is truly about. The title comes from a maritime law explained to us by Newsom’s sweet-voiced Sortilège which explains the problem which comes from carrying certain cargo; Glass shatters, eggs break and chocolate melts. Everything falls apart and Inherent Vice does the same in such a perfectly measured way.
Influences aside, Inherent Vice feels entirely the work of Pynchon and Anderson. It crackles the whole way, aching with a nostalgic melancholia for the early ‘70s (the music, the cars, the people) while keeping a beady eye on the unfolding labyrinthine chaos of Doc’s case. Anderson never throws the period down your throat, expertly focusing the attention on the faces of the bumbling Phoenix and his cohorts, with Robert Elswit’s wonderful cinematography seeing every beautiful blemish.
The cast excel here; As good and insightful as Anderson’s complex script of a time is, Brolin, Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Newsom, Del Toro, Martin Short among many others, upturn and switch the mood like drunk jazz drummers. The directors love of the master shot with no cuts really stands out especially in Pheonix and Waterston’s odd chatty strip tease. It’s one of the best scenes Anderson has turned out which sits awkwardly amidst this rambling, complicated piece of bonkers sunny LA noir. There’s no shame in being lost, that’s kind of the point for at least the first half, but you will find yourself lining up for another pass; Such is the bane of the masters work.