I’ve never dropped acid, but I have a feeling that watching Inherent Vice is akin to attempting to sit through Chinatown while tripping major balls on LSD. One of the criticisms directed at Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is that the labyrinthine drugged-out noir plot is incredibly hard to follow or piece together, and might even be willfully incomprehensible.
To those who think of this admittedly spot on and honestly quite obvious assessment as detraction from enjoying this groovy trip rather than the key reason for celebrating it, I offer you this experiment: Take a Raymond Chandler story, say, either the book or the film adaptation of The Big Sleep. Your task is to describe the plot, in detail, to a friend who’s never heard of Chandler, and in fact is convinced you’re still talking about the jokester from Friends even though you told them that Chandler died in 1959 ("Matthew Perry is a time traveling ghost?", they ask). It’s already near impossible to make your way through the dense plot, isn’t it? Now try doing the same after smoking an eighth of weed, while balancing on a half-inflated beach ball on one foot and spinning a 12-piece dining set on bamboo sticks.
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice revolves around an exceptionally complex and dangerous case dropped inside the already hazy life of drugged-out hippie PI Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) by his chronically melancholic ex Shasta (Katherine Waterston). This is like asking a preschooler to solve an advanced quantum physics equation: A lot of details will inevitably be lost in the process.
In fact, my plus one friend for the press screening pointed out afterwards (Thanks for the baby clothes Drew! That was groovy of you) that Doc’s pal Sortilege’s (Joanna Newsom) mellowed-out noir narration was full of deliberately mispronounced words, turning a handful of seemingly important bits of exposition into pure gibberish.
Amidst the many raw yet gorgeous setups created by legendary DP Robert Elswit, a sequence taking place on a dock drenched in fog stands out, not only because of its obvious nod to old school black-and-white noir, but of the way it succinctly visualizes Doc’s lack of grip on the case. In fact, I’m surprised that every scene, including the ones that take place indoors, didn’t utilize this approach.
Pynchon’s 1970-set LA mystery is so rife with an inherent mistrust of authority, more than a whiff of sinister government conspiracy, secretive cults and cabals that are improbably connected, that if Philip K. Dick became a non-science-fiction writer the way he originally desired to, this is the kind of noir tale he probably would have spun. In fact, a giant international drug cartel that provides their victims with the drugs as well as the new age detox program is reminiscent of a major twist from Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.
With Inherent Vice, Anderson mixes his late career languid and assured aesthetic with the irreverent and loose tone of his early career. Regardless of the manic tonal shifts that the plot requires, he showcases a patient visual approach, letting the story’s willful insanity wash over us. Almost every sequence of expositional dialogue is delivered with a long shot that slowly dollies into a close two-shot of the characters, as if Anderson is toying with us by constantly moving us closer to the details of the case while being aware a hundred percent that none of that information will help one bit when it comes to decoding the big picture.
The performances are uniformly fascinating to watch. Joaquin Phoenix’s take on Doc could have easily turned into a bad parody of The Dude, which itself was a parody of Philip Marlowe, but the way he hangs onto his intense emotional connection to Shasta gives the character enough of a dramatic anchor in between all that delightful goofiness.
The psychological downfall of Josh Brolin’s profoundly disturbed hippie-hating cop, Walter to Doc’s The Dude, is a wonder to behold, and Martin Short’s manic take on a coked-out pedophile dentist deserves its own spin-off movie. Katherine Waterston may seem like a newcomer (She’s actually been around for a while), but her powerful performance here will surely rocket her to stardom.
This is the first Anderson film since his debut Hard Eight that doesn’t get a 5 out of 5 perfect score from me. It’s a wildly entertaining and captivating piece of pure cinema, that’s for sure. Yet one thing eludes me: What was the overall point of adapting this book to the screen? Perhaps the idea that there isn’t one was what attracted Anderson to the project to begin with. However, I also have a feeling that Inherent Vice will grow on me upon repeated viewings.