“Inherent Vice” is sure to be labelled Paul Thomas Anderson’s “
The Big Lebowski,” another sprawling and goofy crime comedy. While that comparison is certainly apt, his take on the comedic film noir stands entirely on its own. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, it’s part throwback to ’70s neo-noir, part stoner comedy, and its inspired madness is effectively brought to life thanks to Anderson’s assured direction.
The film follows hippie detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he investigates the mysterious disappearance of a former girlfriend. The film takes place in 1970, when the hippie movement was slowing to a standstill as Richard Nixon and his “silent majority” took hold of the country.
Anderson is the first director to ever tackle a novel by Pynchon, a notoriously complex and heady writer. The resulting film is anything but traditional and is sure to leave plenty of viewers scratching their heads over what the hell they just watched.
Seemingly justifying the occasionally incoherent narrative, at a panel following the film’s premiere in New York, Anderson stated: “I never remember plots of movies. I remember how they make me feel.”
“Inherent Vice” is steeped in Charles Manson-era hippie paranoia. In this world, according to the powers that be, everyone with shoulder-length hair and a vague patchouli stench is a lunatic cult-member ready to attack Americans at a moment’s notice. The film’s protagonist falls into this category, which make his attempts at solving this confusing affair even more difficult, no matter how professional he tries to be.
I can’t recall one scene in the entire movie that doesn’t feature Phoenix; it’s essentially a one-man show starring a pot-smoking hippie who obliviously stumbles from one major clue to the next.
The real comedy in the film stems from the fact that Sportello is caught up in a conspiracy that he can barely understand, let alone solve. It’s pure joy to watch Phoenix trip his way through solving the elaborate mystery, and all of his exchanges with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are hilarious. Every supporting role appears to have been filled with a perfectly capable A-lister, so even the more insignificant characters are intriguing in their own way. Plenty of laughs stem from Phoenix’s physicality, and it’s astounding what he can accomplish with simply a look (a scene with a frozen banana scene had me and the audience howling).
The dialogue is full of hippie slang (try and count the number of times you catch someone utter “far out” or “right on”) that helps establish the setting and mood, and Sportello’s sheer indifference to his surroundings really drives the whole “stoner hippie” angle home. Sportello is constantly referred to as a “doper,” and it truly fits — the man smokes more joints in the film’s two and a half hours than most people do throughout four years in college.
There are a few sequences that bend reality and feel hallucinatory, ensuring we’re never quite sure what Sportello is really seeing. Pynchon’s words are brought to the screen through narration by the quirky folk singer Joanna Newsom whose musings only add to all the uncertainty. The narrative is purposefully muddled and disorienting, as the audience sees things from Sportello’s unreliable point of view.
The film is often weird for the sake of being weird and only gets more bizarre as it moves along; by the time Martin Short shows up in a hilarious cameo, the film has already gone off the deep end.
“Inherent Vice” looks nothing like Anderson’s other recent works — the beautifully composed and breathtaking cinematography that fills “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” is replaced by a tighter, grainy look that focuses more on close-ups than lush establishing shots. This helps keep the audience confined to Sportello, as we see the world just as he does through the smoke-filled haze. As if the film’s noir aesthetic weren’t enough, there’s even a shadowy scene in a dark, sketchy alley to really drive it home.
What makes the film so unique is how all these different elements combine to form something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It has many functions; it’s an homage to old-school film noir/neo-noir, a goofy stoner comedy, and a compelling mediation on America in the late ’60s/early ’70s. On paper, it sounds like a total trainwreck, but in the hands of one of the greatest living filmmakers, it’s actually one of the best movies of the year.
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