IN AN ERA OF MOVIES where classic Hollywood stories are ruling the mainstream and action/superhero movies are garnering the majority of the attention, it’s nice to see a film that completely breaks these prototypical narratives in favour of a more stylised type.
Inherent Vice follows the story of Private Investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson) sets him on the case of saving her current boyfriend, landowner Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), from the machinations of his wife Sloane Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boyfriend, to put him in an asylum. Breathed yet? That’s just the first five minutes of the film if that’s not complicated enough for you.
The plot of Inherent Vice is so densely layered with characters and set-pieces it can be a little overwhelming at times to keep track. Halfway though the film, I stopped trying to follow what was going on in front of me and simply enjoyed the story as it played out. I think that’s a much better, and saner, way of enjoying this film.
The film portrays the early 70s and captures the fallout of the psychedelic 60s brilliantly with its feelings of paranoia, malaise and the sense of America being reclaimed by more sinister forces. These forces take the form of uptight government agents, ever-present Neo-Nazi biker gangs, Manson Family-esque groups and intolerant police officers. One such officer is Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a hippy-hating, uptight detective who has fallen out of favour with his department, despite the mask of power he wears for the public.
The music is a brilliant mix of contemporary music and original score that never seems ill-placed. It drifts in and out of our hearing like someone has left a radio on in the background and it evokes the emotions and the era spectacularly. The cinematography also reflects the lasting images of the era too, with muted colours dominating the screen for long times, with sudden bursts of bright colour in the form of someone’s clothes or the surroundings. It brilliantly evokes the setting of beach bum California with yellows, oranges and blues. These two elements, music and cinematography, form the feeling that there once was something great and spectacular but it is slowly dying out and being replaced.
At the layered heart of the film is the twisting story of a detective embroiled in a case that keeps getting larger than he had thought. But this is no Raymond Chandler adaptation; this is a Thomas Pynchon adaptation, the first film of its kind, and it’s definitely not as standard as you’d expect. The film is more a series of events that are loosely connected; the real focus is on the players in the farce.
The characters themselves are stronger for the reason of us not being overly concerned with the particulars of a plot, so we attach to them better so we can find something to engage with. I’ve only read a little of Gravity’s Rainbow, another Pynchon novel, but director Paul Thomas Anderson has perfectly captured Pynchon’s style of writing in his presentation of the film.
The lead character of Doc Sportello is a complex persona, an ageing hippie who, though winding his way through the case in a drug-addled, meandering fashion, manages to uncover the particulars of the case in spite of his affected cluelessness. Less Sherlock Holmes than The Dude, Sportello stands as a very strong character and Phoenix’s portrayal is absolutely fantastic. Marking his second collaboration with Anderson, the first being 2012’s The Master, his role as Sportello is convincing and clearly well-thought out.
We see him in various stages throughout the film and at no point are you drawn out by heavy handed characterisation of a pothead beach bum. The subtleties of Sportello’s emotions are fantastic to see, always brewing something up in his mind behind the veneer of the bedraggled hippy, we can engage with and relate to the character. Each of the actors in this film are fantastic – Brolin takes a particularly brilliant role – but it is Phoenix, as the lead, who takes us on this journey. What a fantastic journey it is.