Inherent Vice is like The Big Lebowski meets Naked Gun, with added Chinatown, Chandler and Cheech & Chong. It’s a stoned and rambling comedy/crime caper, a bit incoherent but enormous fun. If you forget about the confusing plot and allow the film to work its magic you’ll enjoy a memorable and groovy trip.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson is the first filmmaker to bring a Thomas Pynchon novel to the big screen. His adapted screenplay is up for an Oscar later this month, with the famously reclusive American author reputed to have featured as an extra.
Set in 1970 in the fictional Californian town of Gordita Beach, the film’s labyrinthine plot involves Private Investigator, ‘Doc’ Sportello (Jaoquin Phoenix), looking into the disappearance of his old girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), shortly after she has visited him asking for his help. Shasta’s new boyfriend is Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a wealthy real estate developer, who is connected to white supremacists and the Golden Fang, a mysterious Chinese heroin cartel.
We struggle to keep up with the succession of new characters and plot information, but, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Doc is engaging company, a warm-hearted doper with lambchop sideburns and latent combat skills. The large ensemble cast are uniformly excellent; Josh Brolin catches the eye as Lieutenant Detective Bigfoot Bjornson, with his flat top buzzcut, John Wayne walk and fondness for sucking ice lollies in a suggestive manner. There are many memorable cameos from the likes of Martin Short (dodgy dentist Dr Rudy Blatnoyd in Austin Powers purple crushed velvet suit) and Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from The Wire). But we always feels as if the actors are on the director’s page, not showboating for their own amusement.
The film has a grainy retro Seventies Super 8 light quality, perfectly complemented by Jonny Greenwood’s wonderful soundtrack, which conjures up the dark side of sun-drenched California, referencing both The End by The Doors and Bernard Herrmann’s score to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Amidst the absurd laughter, we are reminded that this was the era of Vietnam, Nixon and Charles Manson.
But the comedy wins out, and Anderson has fun with visual gags and slapstick, from clumsy waitresses and shoulder-barging cops, to the changing shape of Bigfoot’s ice lollies. Chick Planet Massage is a brothel with a menu like a fast food restaurant. Characters have colourful names such as Burke Stodger and Puck Beaverton, and the screenplay is peppered with stoner wit. Shasta’s expression is described as follows: ‘Now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t really read at all’; in an Advert for Channel View Estates Wolfmann promises ‘a view that can only be described in two words: right on’; we are told that ‘these were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers’; after a pause during a telephone conversation, a girlfriend tells Doc ‘I can hear your pants growing’.
So what does it all mean? Maybe there’s a hidden message in there somewhere, of the sort that Charles Manson found in The Beatles’ White Album. But after a lengthy voiceover musing on the death of the hippy dream, any ‘heavy’ ideas are undercut by its pay-off line: ‘gee,’ he thought, ‘I don’t know.’ Which is pretty much how we feel at the end of Inherent Vice. At one point Shasta tries to explain what the title means – something to do with marine insurance – but I couldn’t quite get my head around it.