‘Inherent Vice’: Inherently vile

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Have you ever read Thomas Pynchon’s surrealistic novel, “Inherent Vice”? Perhaps, I should ask whether you have ever tried to read it?

Even fans of the novelist will concede that “Inherent Vice” is a digressive affair that meanders aimlessly, without any clearly-cognizable narrative trajectory. Some have nevertheless hailed the book as a work of genius stoner noir, while detractors castigate it as a pointless waste of paper. Is it any surprise that Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of “Inherent Vice” should elicit a similarly polarized critical response?

The film is set in southern California during the year 1970. The psychedelic sixties may be over, but the culture wars are still being waged. The recent Manson family murder spree and Nixon-era Oval Office paranoia inform the film. Will the Woodstock Nation ethos of peace, love, and understanding be vanquished by the forces of corporate greed?

Much of the film takes place in the beach-side town of Gordita Beach. This fictional South Bay site is modeled on Manhattan Beach. Pynchon lived there for several years, while he was drafting his breakthrough novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Epitomizing the culture clash is the relationship between two broadly-drawn ambulatory stereotypes, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and L.A.P.D. Lieutenant Detective Christian ”Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).  Doc is a pot-toking  slacker, who sports straggly hair, rumpled denim clothes, and outsized muttonchop sideburns. He operates his private-eye business out of an office suite full of dentists. The square-jawed Bjornsen wears a prototypical J.R. Haldeman flat-top and exudes antipathy towards so-called hippie scum. While Doc contends that, “American life is something to be escaped from,” Bjornsen subscribes to conventional values.

Incongruously, Bjornsen alternates between seeking leads from Doc and beating the shit out of him. Whenever Bjornsen arrests Doc, the latter’s attorney, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), shows up to bail him out.

Doc is still pining over a former girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Who should show up in the middle of the night at Doc’s home? None other than his erstwhile paramour.

Shasta is consulting Doc in his putative professional capacity. She describes a convoluted conspiracy that is supposedly afoot. Her current boyfriend is Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a billionaire, real estate magnate. In another of the plot’s myriad gratuitous incongruities, though Jewish, Wolfmann is affiliated with the anti-Semitic Aryan Brotherhood motorcycle band. They serve as his bodyguards.

Now, Mickey has disappeared. According to Shasta, Wolfmann’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), is planning to have him declared mentally incompetent and involuntarily committed to the loony bin. This will enable her to take control of Mickey’s fortune.

This might provide the set-up for an engaging detective yarn, worthy of Raymond Chandler. However, true to the source novel, it is merely the prelude to a disjointed array of plot threads that never tie together into any sort of comprehensible narrative.

“Inherent Vice” puts a litany of recognizable actors through their paces. Coy Harrington (Owen Wilson) is a sax player, who has long been presumed dead. His wife, Hope (Jena Malone wearing prosthetic teeth), is a recovering heroin addict. She asks Doc to investigate rumors that Coy is still very much alive, if not necessarily well. Had Coy been a sincere political activist or a police plant? Which side of the cultural divide was he on?  Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) is a coke-snorting dentist, who runs a spa. Then, there’s, Japonica Fenway (Sasha Peetrese), an unstable, runaway rich girl. Throw in Doc’s hard-to-imagine amorous affair with a prim and proper assistant district attorney, Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon). The talented Maya Rudolph is wasted in a miniscule role as an office receptionist, Petunia Leeway.

Sortilège (indie musician, Joanna Newsom) pops in and out of the framework of the film. Inventing a device that doesn’t appear in the book, Anderson deploys her both as a character and narrator. In the latter capacity, she solemnly recites, “These were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers.” At one juncture, she is simultaneously both an off-screen narrator and an on-screen character, sitting in a car with Doc. Are we supposed to rely upon her to provide an omniscient overview on what is really going on? Is Anderson taunting the audience with the notion that there is no such thing as an objectified reality?

Joaquin Phoenix provides another annoyingly mannered performance, once again substituting tics and other mannerisms for actual acting. Owen Wilson and Martin Short seem to be competing with him for the dubious distinction of being the film’s most disconcerting presence.

As with all of Anderson’s other works, the production package is extremely polished. Cinematographer, Robert Elswit, is a staunch advocate of the use of film, rather than digital. He provides a beautifully rendered visual text, shot exclusively on 35 millimeter film stock. Despite working with a modest budget, long-time Anderson collaborators, production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges, efficaciously recall a patchouli oil-scented, paisley-filled era. Once again, Johnny Greenwood provides Anderson with an evocative, polyphonic score.

It may be quibblesome to note, but the film’s soundtrack contains an anachronism. The wistful stains of Neil Young’s “Harvest,” play intermittently throughout the film. However, the album containing the tune wasn’t released until 1972, two years after the film is set.

While Anderson is admirably attentive to every minute detail of the production scheme, he evidences unfettered disdain for the notion of having a coherent plot. Could this be the same auteur, who brought us such memorable masterpieces as “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood”?

In fairness, allow me to acknowledge that the film has been showered with critical accolades. Anderson’s adapted screenplay has been cited as the best of the year by a certain prominent group. I’m looking at you National Board of Review!

I may be in a critical minority. However, to me, despite its impressive production values, “Inherent Vice” is inherently vile.

*1/2 R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence) 148 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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