Film Review – Inherent Vice
And so it comes to pass that with hippies, drugs and secret societies wrapped in conspiracies of world madness, writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted one of the wildest and most important neo-noir films of the new millenia.
It’s long been thought that author Thomas Pynchon’s novels are impossible to film. Densely compact and creatively imagined prose, often sends readers down endless sentences full of surreal pathos, paranoia, and social commentary. Anderson has stated he tried on several occasions to find ways to adapt two of the authors previous works, Vineland and Mason & Dixon into movies, only to abandon them because of the difficulty.
With Inherent Vice, Anderson has brought to life a thrilling and imaginative adaptation of the author’s seventh and perhaps most accessible novel. The movie not only finds a way to adapt most of the book’s narrative but also brings to the screen Pynchon’s uniquely poetic and insightful voice.
Vice takes place in 1970 as the freewheeling 60s gives way to the turbulent 70s. It tells the story of hippie, ex-surfer, turned private investigator Doc Sportello, played with a perfunctory air of wit and command by the ever increasingly impressive Joaquin Phoenix. Doc one night is paid a mysterious visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta (newcomer Katherine Waterston), asking for his help with her new boyfriend, a well known tycoon named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), who is being implicated in what appears to be a real estate scam perpetrated by his wife and her lover.
Early into the film, there’s a scene that involves Doc arriving at what is ostensibly a bordello to question about what may be the disappearance of a white supremacist. As he enters the building, the camera faces towards Doc, revealing a hidden group of camouflaged men in the surrounding bushes. At first the scene seems quirky, and out of place. It’s only several minutes later, after another rather hilariously absurd sequence, that the purpose for the men in camouflage is given.
The sequence doesn’t quite play like that in the book, revealing to the reader earlier what is going on. It’s this play between the difference of delivery that both establishes Vice as a Paul Thomas Anderson picture, and as a proper adaptation of Pynchon. Anderson knows how Pynchon uses the delivery of information to entertain and manipulate the reader, and in turn uses a similar approach to do the same to the viewers of his movie.
Shrouded in a marijuana haze of cool colors and colorful characters, Doc traverses the Los Angeles underground coming into contact with civil rights activists, undercover narcs, and what may be a secret cabal of dentists. All of them maybe, or maybe not, having to do with something called the Golden Fang. Anderson relates the material in a quasi comedic, and at times slapstick tone, that captures the counter-culture craze that existed under the surface of free-love and war.
Director of photography, and longtime P.T. Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit, shoots the movie in a closed-in, hand-held manner that recalls the intimacy of Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will be Blood. A pre-neon color scheme of blues, reds and yellows couples with composer Johnny Greenwood’s score to give an ever dreamier atmosphere to an otherwise already dreamy vibe. The story’s narrator, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), appears and disappears from the same scene at times, sometimes accompanying Doc as his friend and seemingly spiritual guide, while others an omniscient presence presiding over the story.
Vice carries an ensemble cast that covers from Josh Brolin as “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, the police-foil to Doc’s hippy antics, to Owen Wilson as Coy Harlingen, an informant being pulled in too many directions, to another newcomer Hong Chau, who does a thoroughly entertaining job as Jade, a sex worker who comes to help Doc in his quest. With many other notable actors filling in roles throughout, including Martin Short as a coke-sniffing dentist, there’s no shortage of talent to be found.
Despite its loony antics, nutty characters, and almost surrealist design, there’s both a somberness and a sense of warning that lurks beneath the surface. Doc is never employed to carry out his sleuthing and does so out of his ceaseless love for Shasta.
Accompanying a hopeless romantic sense of duty, both Anderson and Pynchon seem to be drawing on an underlying sense of a world that’s taking a darker turn with each new generation. Both storytellers seem to be implying that at the source of all this wackiness is a need to be wacky in order to endure a world that wants more and more to homogenize the counter-culture in order to conform to the status quo. As the sign above a mental institution in the movie says, “Straight is Hip”.