If the late 1960s embodied all the hope and idealism of youthful innocence in the California dreaming counterculture (beginning with the Manson murders), the 1970s embodied deterioration and entropy. From the political corruptions of the Nixon administration and the Watergate fiasco, the times foreshadowed a social and economic national decline heightened during the Carter administration and solidified with Reagan. Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice replete with ordered chaos, comic absurdity and the disintegration of iconic cultural myths has been adapted for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Remaining fairly true to the novel, Anderson’s film crystallizes Pynchon’s ironic and wry chronicle of American devolution. Shown as the centerpiece film in its World Premiere at the 2014 New York Film Festival, Inherent Vice boasts a prodigious cast of exceptional actors headed by Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Benicio Del Toro and Owen Wilson.
The film begins after Doc’s friend Sortilège (Joanna Newsome), in voice over narration (a weakness of the film not always supported by logic or cinematic effects), introduces our anti-hero private-eye Doc Sportello in his bachelor refuge at fictional haven Gordita Beach near Los Angeles. Enter Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s former squeeze (Katherine Waterston). Shasta makes a surprise visit to Doc’s pad and seductively solicits Doc’s detective skills to track down her millionaire developer boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Shasta inspires and titillates Doc with the warning that this will be an adventure fraught with danger for she is being “watched.” The danger exudes from Mickey’s network which includes vicious Aryan Brotherhood bikers to Chinese drug cartel smugglers and worst of all federal law enforcement and their rivals, the local LA police.
At the outset, we are unsure whether Shasta is acting on her own or whether someone has hired or coerced her to engage Doc in this intrigue to satisfy another agenda. During the course of his investigation, Doc fuels his passion for toking and light doping to aid his ability to solve the mystery of Mickey Wolfmann’s disappearance. The pot haze increases Doc’s preternatural, shaman-like skills and also makes for humorous interplay when Doc’s extra sensory sensitivity allows him to see through and into the actions of others. Here, Joaquin Phoenix’s deadpan reactions about what he perceives are funny as the characters go about their business which is indeed, whacked.
In true detective story fashion out of Philip Marlowe and film noir, the plot thickens, then skews toward strange and absurd territory, following a serpentine path that doubles back on itself. What results can only be described as a labyrinth of misdirection. Shasta disappears. Doc who still loves her becomes frenzied because he fears she’s been murdered by one of the grand characters in Wolfmann’s network. When Doc visits a massage parlor run by grotesque Nazi Aryan Brotherhood skin head types, he is bludgeoned and wakes up with a leather draped biker corpse beside him prompting an arrest and murder accusation by LA police.
Joining the mix of these stereotyped cartoons from a hippie’s nightmare gone bad is Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin whose authenticity and caricature is balanced to perfection). Bigfoot is a scurrilous, racist, red-necked LA police lieutenant who has mentally stenciled a bulls-eye on Doc’s back, which he is itching to target.
Brolin is masterfully funny in his truculent attitude and is sufficiently crude, rude and unjust to Doc so that we find him patently stupid, and therefore harmlessly hysterical. The rancor between these two grows during the film as there are additional disappearances, kidnappings, drug conspiracies, sinister FBI and potential CIA plots and drug experimentations. At the heart of this mayhem is Doc who is being squeezed by the FBI and Bigfoot to help solve the mysteries related to the drug smuggling, missing persons and murders. Added to this melee is the cocaine fiend dentist and pederast Dr. Blatnoyd (an over the top Martin Short), whose presence is connected somehow with the mysterious cargo vessel, the Golden Fang, a fact implied by Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), Doc’s brilliant and efficient lawyer.
Anderson (like Pynchon), slips in sporadic film references (Chinatown, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, Night Moves). Cleverly navigating and propelling his cartoonish, prototypical characters, background shots and opaquely clear cinematography awash with symbols and hippie counterculture tropes, Anderson etches a convoluted, dream-like story. As watchful participants, we are ready to follow Doc’s lead for he is well-meaning and apparently incorruptible; that he is a pot-dazed, uncanny, loopy detective becomes endearing because of Phoenix’s impeccable portrayal. We are willing to go along for Doc’s “mind blowing” ride solving the mystery of his former girlfriend’s lover’s disappearance as he is catapulted into the highs and lows of a discovery game. It is a game that we realize along with Doc is a magic carpet ride; nothing is as it seems and key personages are gaming, lying and playing each other in a misapplied confusion of wills, twisted motives and quests for power. Toward the middle of this miasma, we further see that from Shasta to Wolfmann to the disapproving Deputy DA (Reese Witherspoon), to reformed druggie Coy who is being used by the FBI (Owen Wilson), even to the prostitutes at the massage parlor, the characters are caught in machinations they cannot untangle; they are overwhelmed. Even Doc becomes a pawn.
Pynchon and Anderson’s characterizations are a reflection of us; they intimate future sinister developments of a broader cultural scope. In the years to come these developments will foster the public’s increasing awareness of systemic corruptions in many American systems (political, justice, legal, pharmaceutical), dictated by corporate oligarchies. This will further lead to the culture’s disenchantment with consumerism and the resultant debased American lifestyles. Pervasive will be the drive to escape the hopelessness of being forced to live unfulfilled lives of screaming soul desperation.
By the end of the film, though the immediate mysteries and murders are solved and Doc has become more enlightened to actually help reunite an estranged family, the resolution is ultimately unsatisfying and diffuse. Of necessity the most positive aspect of the film is the embedded uncertainty of everything. On the one hand thematically, we are left with the knowledge that these seeds of unresolved problems planted and watered by greed, corruption, amorality, alienation in the 1970s will burgeon into the monstrous issues that confront us in the present time. There is little that can be done to insure against the debilities of people, their social culture and their destructive impulses fueled by drugs, selfishness, greed, lust. This is their “inherent vice,” defined in the film by Doc’s lawyer as an insurance term to deny insurance on an item because it will inevitably fall apart. We and the culture can and will fall apart and there is nothing to stop or insure against it, except in what Doc shows us is possible with Coy, a friend he helps.
One of the themes of the film and the novel is that we may not all crash and burn and that indeed, when someone “falls apart,” someone else may salvage the remnants to cushion the plummet. Surely, there are moments of light and redemption despite our massive self-destructive and noxious self-denials that we are on a tight course to oblivion. Amidst our “inherent vices,” ameliorations can be made as Doc discovers by the film’s conclusion, and others may benefit from our kindness and empathy. If we stay the course and keep the doors to discovery open, we just might even ennoble ourselves during the process of helping those in our sphere of influence who are trying for a second chance in life.
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