ByTommy DePaoli, writer at
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Tommy DePaoli

The best advice I can offer anyone preparing to see [Inherent Vice](movie:608094): don't spend too much time worrying about the plot. You'll risk missing out on the disorienting fun of the ride.

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest feature is often a labyrinth of a movie, and, even after stumbling your way to the exit, you're left with a sense of hazy wonderment thicker than pot smoke. This is not a flaw nor is it a detriment. In fact, the nebulous trip becomes the movie's calling card, a darkly funny good time that never shies away from criminal excesses or social criticism.

This is "Cheech and Chong" for cinephiles (with a healthy gloss of noir).

Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay Hepworth
Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay Hepworth

Here's the story (as best I can relay it): In 1970, drug-addled private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets an unexpected visit from his former lover Shasta (newcomer Katherine Waterson). When she bats her pretty little eyelashes and convinces him to take her case, Doc is embroiled in a messy conspiracy that involves her missing new boyfriend, his multimillion dollar fortune, and a schooner/drug cartel/vertically integrated enterprise called the Golden Fang (yes, it's all three). Along the serpentine road to answers, Doc is sporadically hampered by snake in the grass Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a cop steadfastly convinced of Doc's involvement in everything insidiously deemed "hippie."

Amid the cyclical conspiracies and the frequent civil rights violations, Inherent Vice revels in delightfully wry humor. It's a tonal balancing act that Anderson walks with complete assurance, and this grim wit coupled with his commitment to dreamers and loners make the exceptional director the heir apparent to Thomas Pynchon's novels. As many readers of Pynchon have proclaimed, his dense works do not lend themselves to easy adaptation (which is why it has never been tried before). While they contain cinematic scenes of intrigue and bizarre characters, even Pynchon's most accessible stories have complexly arranged plots, deconstructive political critiques, and layers and layers of pop culture references and high-brow philosophy. Not exactly the recipe for feature-length Hollywood film, but the genius of Anderson evokes Pynchon's voice while retaining his own, creating a memorable duet.

A still from Inherent Vice
A still from Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice suggests that American life is something to escape from, and I don't think that's just a generational claim. Though it takes place in the 1970s, the looming mood of something sinister and ominous feels immediately familiar. Doc and his "doper" cohorts exist on the margins of society, in the fictitious California city of Gordita Beach. Sixties drug culture have a constant presence in their lives, but, more importantly, they cling to the idealism of that era. Doc's counterculture ideology is beginning to be at odds with the times, and he is suddenly a threat to the people in power. The increasingly chummy relationship between the government and the private sector, as represented by Bigfoot, leads to Doc being monitored and mistreated as he searches for leads. All he keeps finding, however, are people who want to get lost.

As the commandingly irate Bigfoot, Josh Brolin turns in an another Oscar-worthy performance. His idiosyncracies (specifically, a penchant for sucking on chocolate-covered bananas) make the antagonist oddly appealing, but Brolin imbues him with enough unbridled rage to make him wholly believable. Though he actively gets in Doc's way, the pair share a relationship that is almost brotherly in nature. They feel like two sides of the same coin, the push and pull of optimism and imperialism that has fueled this country for centuries.

In another bit of inspired casting, Anderson nabbed Joanna Newsom, the freak folk harpist, as the story's shaman. The aptly named Sortilège (a word that refers to fortune telling) guides the narrative and the main character through astrological pitfalls and seemingly divine comeuppances. Her melodic voiceover winds in and out of the fray and, despite the loftiness of her mystic messages, she provides some helpful handholds on a mountain of a story.

Sortilège's monologues are taken almost entirely from Pynchon's exact passages, providing one major aspect of the film's impression. As the movie's guiding light—in Pynchon's exact words, she's "in touch with invisible forces and could diagnose and solve all manner of problems, emotional and physical"—she insists that you must experience before you can understand. Those who can endure feeling prior to thinking will find Anderson's romp rewarding.

Joanna Newsom at the New York FIlm Festival
Joanna Newsom at the New York FIlm Festival

Overall, Inherent Vice may not be as colossal as There Will Be Blood or as emotionally engrossing as The Master, but it establishes itself as a remarkable addition to Anderson's already impressive oeuvre. Challenging, humorous, and delectably delirious, the film will leave you feeling simultaneously provoked and fulfilled (even if you spend much of it scratching your head).

So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the dope trip. Just be prepared for a contact high.


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