Review – Inherent Vice

inherent_viceThere are two extremes when over-analysing a film.  The formulaic approach crash-tests the foundation of a screenplay ensuring it adheres to the three act structure and ensuring the film’s logic is watertight; it’s studying cinema like an accountant.  The other extreme takes the approach of a conspiracy theory enthusiast where a nod or a wink from the protagonist tugs on threads leading to a director’s intent on how the moon landing was faked (an actual theory held about Stanley Kubrick and The Shining showcased in the excellent documentary Room 237).  Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has often been slayed by the formulaic analysis of his films, and thrived in the open-ended discussion about the deeper meaning of his work.   Inherent Vice (adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel) works to infuriate the bean counter critics, toy with people who read too much into Anderson’s filmography, and yet it still begs for a deeper reading of the material while proving it’s okay for a mystery to remain cryptic once it’s over.

In 1970s Los Angeles, private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) takes on a case surrounding a series of disappearances involving a former lover (Katherine Waterston), and a billionaire (Eric Roberts) and his wife (Serena Scott Thomas).  Running interference with Doc’s investigation are gangs, government officials, and Lieutenant Detective Christian F. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

Take the film noir setting of a private investigator’s office, and replace it with a beachside shack.  Instead of cigarette smoke, add the haze of a freshly lit joint.  And substitute a glamorous femme fatale with a bohemian beach girl, and you’ve got the opening of Inherent Vice.  “Don’t worry, the thinking comes later”, Doc says, and take his advice.  Tune in, drop out, and let the superb hippy noir wash over you.  Anderson flexes his filmmaking muscles with the free flowing approach of a beat poet on a conspiracy theory binge.  There are tangents within tangents, all part of Anderson’s gambit with the over-analysers, but instant gratification is off the table and Anderson weaves a tale that lingers once the haze, sort of, clears.

From the second Doc scribbles “not hallucinating” on his notepad while listening to a witness, a hint of paranoia enters the goofy stoner world Anderson has created.  The injection of wacky humour amplifies each ridiculous digression from the plot as Doc alternates between different perceptions of reality.

Anderson’s comic sensibility opens up Inherent Vice to make way for the central conspiracy that focuses on the power base of the American White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASPs) establishment trying to exploit the free thinking hippie movement to maintain their power.  Doc’s realisation that the hippie mantra has become infected is the central sickness of Anderson’s interpretation of Pynchon’s novel.  But that’s just one reading of a film that’s packed tight with layers.  Your guess is as good as mine.  What a trip.


Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie