Inherent Vice currently screens in New York City and Los Angeles. It receives a nationwide expansion on January 9, 2015.
An opening title card from Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language features the following text: “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality”. That’s the sort of line that could’ve fit snugly within the hippie drawl of Joanna Newson’s sonorous narration in Inherent Vice, where she goes as far as foretelling the “astrologically perilous” times at hand. As Sortilège, a name referring to a form of divination, Newsom lingers as an ominous spirit of dread-filled propulsion found in spurts through Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Her presence accounts for less than a quarter of the film but is an integral part of the film’s success; or, perhaps more correctly, is critical to the film succeeding at all. Amid the visual density on display, the impeccable craft of its production and symbiotic level of performance, this is a film that finds solace in her ethereal spirit. For all of Inherent Vice’s gags and humor, for its verbal dexterity and frozen-banana crudeness, there is something jarringly downtrodden about the picture, where the film covertly trades imagination for reality.
The psychedelic haze that composes Inherent Vice makes it difficult to confine it within any conventional synopsis. Saying it is about everything and nothing may as well suffice, for it is a film involving a cartel of dentists, missing boyfriends and girlfriends, and an ape of a cop, all set in a fictional, post-Manson, California in the 70s. The details become inconsequential, failing to illuminate individually but all servicing a central strung-out thesis of men and society in decline. There’s a mystery in there. A case to be solved. But contradictions pile, and I’m not referring to its central mystery, per se. Everyone and everything operates in opposition: surfer-musicians as police informants, a district attorney with a soft-spot for her perpetually-stoned private investigator competition, junkies as drug-counselors, etc. It’s a messy tapestry. It’s no surprise that Newson’s Sortilège makes such an indelible impression. She’s the one who doesn’t possess the same sort of precarious qualities that everyone else in the film embraces.
Within the film’s humor is a warped sense of melancholia, where a line-up of characters mourn the loss of someone. Whether it’s Larry “Doc” Sportello’s (Joaquin Phoenix) missing girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson) or Det. Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen’s (Josh Brolin) dead partner, everyone in the film is bereft, with drugs, sex, and vice all filling in the holes of despondency. It’s easy to get lost within the film’s zig-zag narrative and humor; it’s the picture’s ignition toward movement and where you’ll immediately respond to the film. But the spine of Inherent Vice is pensive and grim; forlorn over the loss of a bygone era.
Inherent Vice’s setting also feeds into the notion of contradictory dichotomies that the text explores. The idyllic Gordita Beach, with its freewheeling hippies and stoner logic, soon falls victim to the looming establishment. Anderson’s opening shot is an important image that’s repeated toward the end of the film. It’s the image of Gordita Beach, with two homes framing the focal ocean. This obstructed ocean view is critical, as it implies a sense of dislocation - of restriction. It’s no small coincidence that scenes following the second deployment of that obstructed beach image, now two hours into the picture, we find our cop authority quite literally kicking the door into a stoner’s reservoir. Sportello is set-up to lose and is the prototypical noir patsy. Even when confronted with his immediate downfall, he’s too stoned to realize what’s going on.
Anderson has always been a disciple of Robert Altman, though that influence has largely been on a surface level. Films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia have taken Altman’s principle philosophies of ensemble casts, the assorted collection of distinct faces, and were concentrated to realize Anderson’s pet concern of disassociated familial structures. Elsewhere, Anderson’s artistic ingenuity made greater strides toward singularity with films like Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and especially The Master. Altman or Kubrick or Demme or Godard may have residual effects on his latter work, but the completed effort remains wholly Anderson’s. Yet with Inherent Vice, Anderson cribs heavily from Altman, moreso than ever. And most surprisingly, it’s tonal miming. While Phoenix’s performance resembles Elliot Gould in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with Phoenix embracing a lackadaisical, sometimes confident, sometimes confounded aura, it’s actually Altman’s MASH that Inherent Vice shares a kinship with.
Partly, it’s the tonal dichotomy at play: both films dabble in humor and pathos in jarring ways. For example, a violent brawl and shootout eventually results in the comic image of Sportello figuring out the best way of housing drugs. Or even more jarring is the immediate threat of a showdown between Sportello and Bjornsen, only to see it resolved in an insane visual gag. These sequences recall the emotional fake-outs of MASH in a way, where death following a surgery occurs in one scene, only to be followed by a round of golf or an Army football game. This sort of distillation of pathos through humor isn’t typically my bag, though it’s a decision that’s clearly found in the source material and handled with Anderson’s formal precision.
Despite my familiarity with the Thomas Pynchon novel, I still found myself straining to keep up with the rapid nature of the film. It’s different from my reaction to Anderson’s The Master, where I felt myself looking at the film come toward me, only to see it take a divergent path. Inherent Vice is more exuberant in its colors and characters, but its manic energy comes out of panic. Not necessarily a stoner’s paranoia or even any narrative anxiety, but rather a tonal one. It resembles the feeling of being lost and not really knowing where you are. It’s a feeling not all too dissimilar to the apprehension felt by Paul Hackett in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours - well, if Hackett were baked throughout, I guess. The closest Inherent Vice really ever gets to spelling out a sort of thesis comes from Sortilège. She ponders the decline of the 60s in the imposing threat of authority and establishment on free thought. Doc who like the audience is drawn to this siren singing of shipwreck, replies: “I don’t know”. Perhaps Doc has already found refuge in reality.