The trailer for Inherent Vice achieves a rare thing: it perfectly conveys the tenor of the film without giving anything away. In two minutes, we’re introduced to the woozy Californian setting and the entire colourful cast of characters. But as to what actually happens in the film, we’re left guessing.
Having now seen Inherent Vice, I’m still none the wiser. Fans of clear narratives, beware: this film throws you no bones. The source material is a novel by Thomas Pynchon, known for his formidably intricate plots and singular vernacular; writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has produced a remarkably faithful adaptation. This is a sort of detective film, but more than that, it’s about the early-70s LA subculture that it recreates in such glorious detail. The emphasis is not on whodunnit and why, but on who’s got the drugs and how much.
A synopsis is difficult, but here goes. Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix on riotous comic form, is a private investigator-cum-stoner. A surprise visit from his ex puts him on the scent of a plot to abduct wealthy property developer Mickey Wolfmann.
His investigation brings him into contact with the FBI, a fugitive saxophonist, a drugged-up dentist and a sinister organisation known as the Golden Fang. Hollywood faces both familiar (Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson) and new (Katherine Waterston) pop up along the way; but identities get confused and leads go nowhere, as Doc learns that weed is not conducive to good detective work.
Pynchon and Anderson share a talent for merging highbrow style with pulpy subject matter and oddball humour. Beneath the snafu of the detective story, Inherent Vice is essentially a goofy, nostalgic tribute to that awkward post-hippie era, lovingly shot on old film stock and evocatively scored by Jonny Greenwood. References to both film noir conventions and the Charles Manson killings add a dark edge, landing the tone somewhere between Chinatown and Cheech & Chong.
Notably, this film mostly eschews the grand themes and showboating set pieces of Anderson’s earlier work.
Though challenging in some respects, it’s one of his more modest offerings. While Boogie Nights showed us the porn industry’s coke-addled 80s comedown and The Master probed the anxieties of postwar America, the dominant vibe of Inherent Vice is one of hazy paranoia induced by smoking too many joints. Too weird for the mainstream, too slight to be a masterpiece, it seems destined for cult glory.
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