Inherent Vice – Film Review

 By Stephen Mayne @finalreel 

Your name’s Larry Sportello but they call you Doc. You live by the Californian beach in a community shrinking by the day. Work is for suckers but you do it from time to time. In the PI game you’re a pro, or at least you know enough to say you are. Really, you’re just high; often and always. Except your heart’s broken and not fixing fast. And then she walks in again with a job. Her rich new boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann is missing and she wants you to find him. It’s not worth the risk but you say yes anyway. And the deeper you investigate, the quicker the floor falls away. It could be film noir, it’s almost film noir. But it’s not. It’s film noir as a feeling and that feeling’s taking you on quite a ride. Welcome to author Thomas Pynchon’s world, welcome to director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson’s imagination. Welcome to Inherent Vice.

This is America as a dream dies, America as the world hardens. The blissful comradeship of hippydom is being stamped flat. There are a few holdouts, you consider yourself one. They can’t last for long. Just ask your friend Sortilége (Joanna Newsom). She always has an opinion, only too happy to narrate over your quest. All the forces of capitalist progress are there to corrupt and cajole. Rumour has it big shot property developer Mickey (Eric Roberts) wanted to build houses for free, betraying his financial supporters in the ruling business and governing elite. And now he’s missing. Some surprise.

She wants you to plunge in and save him. Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the flaxen haired beach girl who got away. You love her and always will. You care little that she’s thrown you down a path with Nazi biker gangs and a supposedly dead saxophone player (Owen Wilson). You care even less that you’ll be dragged into missions of revenge with your cop nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). And just what is this Golden Fang everyone keeps going on about. Your friend and sometime legal counsel Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) might know. Maybe your current squeeze Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) can help. Either way, you’ll have to do the legwork.

But where to start? First take a look around. The world is one of grainy images and striking colours. Light glows off orange dresses and blue shirts. Everyone is clothed to perfection, neatly coiffured with that shambolic look so in vogue. You do your part with your jaunty hat, olive jacket, dirty feet and unkempt hair that turns briefly into a disappointing afro. It can only be the early 70’s. Just pause and listen. Is that Neil Young in the background? There’s also Jonny Greenwood though. Are we not in the 70’s? No, this has to be the 70’s. No one could be that skilled as to have faked it.

You realise early on this story is going to be many things to many people. That feeling only increases as you fall deeper down the rabbit hole. There are moments of devastating beauty and bursts of casual sexuality. A lot of the time you’re tumbling head over heels, the king of the pratfalls. Then you’re handcuffed and fighting for your life. You might be riding in the car with a drugged up dentist or sneaking around a mental institution. And then there’s the Golden Fang. Whatever that might be. So you keep digging even if it makes no sense.

The end of the journey is now drawing near and you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. You almost don’t recognise the face. It looks a bit like that actor Joaquin Phoenix. Though just how you know who he is remains a mystery. But it couldn’t be Phoenix. He couldn’t transform into the burnt out, shambling PI stumbling over the furniture that you are. He couldn’t master the array of fantastically descriptive facial expressions you’ve worked on all your life. And he certainly couldn’t replicate your love torn feelings for Shasta. Could he?

And then it’s all over. What on earth just happened? You shake your head. That didn’t really hang together did it? The adventure stretched and contorted, losing the thread before picking it up again, only to find it had changed once more. There were long periods of frustration, and more than enough confusion to share around. But thinking back, so much stuck with you. At times you found it uproariously funny, at others desperately sad. These are the dying days of your world. You’ll never get them back.

On the way home you spot something. Partially concealed in the shadows stand the reclusive author and his younger filmmaking friend deep in conversation. You wander over to give them a piece of your mind but the author responds before you can find the words.

“Hello Doc, you don’t look quite yourself. What’s up?”

You mutter something about not knowing what was going on what with all the confusing plot strands and lack of a definitive conclusion. He watches carefully before bursting into laughter.

“But Doc, when do you ever know what’s going on. Besides, did you not enjoy the ride?”

You pause before nodding.

“Then what are you complaining about?”

Inherent Vice is on general release from January 30th.

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