Inherent Vice – a maritime insurance term for cargo, as in “Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters”.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s screen adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice is set in the sunny haze of 1970’s Southern California just as capitalism, paranoia and Charles Manson are seeking to undermine the drug-induced peace, love and golden flower-power glow.
When Larry “Doc” Sportello, the stoner/slacker version of Sam Spade (Joaquin Phoenix) receives a late night visit from his ex-honey Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to help foil the kidnap of her new married lover everything seems straight-forward enough, but it’s not long before the water starts to muddy and I soon began to wonder if the brownie I ate during the Ads might have been laced with a bit more than just chocolate chips.
It has to be said this is the first time anyone has attempted to put any of the reclusive author Pynchon’s work onto the silver screen and P.T.A. the master of the big story and Oscar nominated director of Magnolia, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood seems like the perfect person to transcribe the notoriously difficult reading matter onto celluloid and to a certain extent he succeeds, in fact maybe a bit too well.
You see, Inherent Vice is the cinematic equivalent of smoking a rather large joint; there are some hilariously funny moments; I wont be able to look at Josh Brolin again without of thinking of chocolate bananas, and Martin Short is fantastically over-the-top as a coke snorting dentist with a penchant for nubile young hippy chicks. The issue is though, enjoyable as it is to watch, two and a half hours is a long time to spend in a state of mild confusion and much of Inherent Vice feels like a stoned, mumbled, pre-cursor to a bigger story that is just around the corner, but never quite materialises. Strangely (or perhaps intentionally) the effect is very similar to actually reading a Thomas Pynchon novel.
The movie captures the period through stunning Super-8 mirror shades and the all-star cast including Reece Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson and especially Brolin all pitch their cameos with effortless authenticity. Joaquin Phoenix as ‘The Doc’ is in nearly every frame and is so good I’ve almost forgiven him for “I’m Still Here” (almost). As stand alone pieces most scenes work flawlessly, it’s only when your brain tries to piece them together into a coherent narrative does it buckle under the purple haze.
There are shades of John Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski and Anderson himself describes Inherent Vice as a “Cheech and Chong movie”, which I can kind of sort of see, although it’s something of a dis-service as it’s much more than a stoner movie.
My advice would be to do the opposite to most movies and soak up as much information as possible about Inherent Vice before you go and see it, and if you are really brave, read the Pynchon book too. The movie becomes more rewarding when you just go with the flow and pay less attention to the plot.
I’m planning to watch it again, not to work out what is going on, but to NOT work out what is happening, switch off my brain and just enjoy the ride.
Inherent Vice is out in the UK on Fri Jan 30th