Arts Review, Movies

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice featured image

Paul Thomas Anderson, director and script based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Doc Sportello), Josh Brolin (Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen), Owen Wilson (Coy Harlingen), Katherine Waterston (Shasta Fay Hepworth), Reese Witherspoon (Penny Kimball), Benicio del Toro (Sauncho Smilax), Jena Malone (Hope Harlingen), Maya Rudolph (Petunia Leeway), Martin Short (Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd), Eric Roberts (Mickey Wolfmann), Serena Scott Thomas (Sloane Wolfmann), Peter McRobbie (Adrian Prussia), Michelle Sinclair (Clancy Charlock), Joanna Newsom (Sortilege), Hong Chau (Jade), Jefferson Mays (Dr. Threeply)

Zoomers will remember the late Sixties and early Seventies, when “the love generation” celebrated sex, drugs and rock’n’roll while their elders looked on in horror. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s acclaimed novel Inherent Vice more than embraces the hippie era. You can almost smell the patchouli, marijuana and dirty feet in this visceral evocation of a not-so-distant past fondly recalled by some for its rock concerts and freedom but viciously condemned by others for its anarchical ways and anti-Establishment attitudes.

Inherent Vice sports a shaggy-dog plot and private eye, Doc Sportello, whose long curly hair and mutton chops makes him look like one of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, one of the iconic underground commix of the time. One of Doc’s ex-“old ladies” Shasta ropes him into searching for a missing real estate mogul, Mickey Wolfmann, who is now her current flame. His wife Sloane, who is concerned that he might start giving away his fortune on hippie causes espoused by Shasta might have kidnapped Wolfmann. Or maybe the FBI has him. In any case, he’s not around.

The Doc makes Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep look like a deep thinker. At least Marlowe, the famous Raymond Chandler detective also played by Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, generally had a plan and doggedly pursued his investigations. Sportello staggers through Inherent Vice in a haze of marijuana smoke, encountering a slew of California characters, who offer clues, threats, friendships and more jobs. They include: Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an inspired Josh Brolin), who appears to be Doc’s nemesis but may actually be his friend; public prosecutor Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), a straight-laced lawyer who is Doc’s secret lover; Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a sax-playing double agent who has gotten in too deep into nefarious organizations; his sad, appealing wife Hope (Jena Malone); the sexy enigmatic Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston); debauched dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short); taciturn tough guy Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and helpful sex worker Jade (Hong Chau).

Somehow, Doc solves the case and even performs a selfless act that helps the lives of a couple of the crazy characters he’s met along the way. But Inherent Vice isn’t really about its plot anymore than was Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould, which measured the old romantic notions of being a heroic detective against the chaos of the early Seventies. Both films investigate a time and place that is so pivotal to where we are at today.

The term “inherent vice” is defined as a hidden fundamental defect, which causes an object to deteriorate irreparably. Mickey Wolfmann tells Shasta that she has an “inherent vice” before disappearing. In legal terminology, such a vice makes an object or carrier uninsurable, if detected. What was the inherent vice of the Seventies? Was it the hippies, whose movement was doomed to fail? Or was it their enemy, the vaunted Establishment, which has continued to hold sway over Western society but may be deteriorating now as global warming, terrorism and ever-growing conglomerates threaten their democratic but oligarchic assumptions?

That’s the essential mystery behind P.T. Anderson’s stoner comedy and private eye machinations. Inherent Vice is one of the most thoughtful and impressive films of the year.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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