Film Review | Inherent Vice

Heady and long, Inherent Vice doesn’t cut corners in its depiction of the Swinging Sixties in America. But is Paul Thomas Anderson’s languid adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s cult novel worth the plunge? 

Through a haze darkly: Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon stew their nerves in the contradictory ‘paranoid chill’ that characterises Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s cult novel
Through a haze darkly: Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon stew their nerves in the contradictory ‘paranoid chill’ that characterises Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s cult novel

America is a funny place. A capitalist promised land that despite recent economic upheavals remains the soft-superpower of the Western world to this day, its origins are bound to be a neurotic mix of utopian ambition and institutionalised oppression. Its film industry sometimes gets around to critiquing its historical anatomy: more recently, see 12 Years a Slave and Zero Dark Thirty.

But Paul Thomas Anderson is arguably the go-to filmmaker when it comes to intense and psychologically involving mini-epics on America’s psyche. They’re synecdoches – snapshots that reveal the country’s inner workings. From Daniel Day Lewis’s self-made oil magnate Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007) – a vampiric presence prefiguring the rise of capitalism – to the unexpectedly tender exploration of self-made religions in The Master (2012), Anderson now swerves back into a milieu he explored in his breakthrough Boogie Nights (1997), albeit with an entirely different lens, and working from a novel by that other explorer of the mad-and-maddening American continent, the enigmatic Thomas Pynchon.

Set during the hazy tail end of 60s America, Inherent Vice begins in a shanty beach house in Gordita Beach, California, where Private Investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by his former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). As if his frequent drug use hasn’t left him feeling disoriented enough, Doc indulges Shasta’s plea for help.

But it’s a bit of a mind-bending affair in and of itself: her current boyfriend, the real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is apparently being set up to be carted away into a mental hospital by his wife and her own lover.

But the second Doc wades into the case, things get complicated. Employing the occasional and reluctant (for both sides) help of police hard-man and sometime actor Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Doc stumbles across one eccentric character after another, all of whom appear to have a connection to the kidnapping attempt in question – a kidnapping attempt that grows more ambitious with each passing day. But though these connections are slippery, they appear to have a common denominator: the sinister organisation going by the name ‘Golden Fang’…

Inherent Vice delivers on its promise to faithfully adapt Pynchon’s sprawling detective noir pastiche, which contains an embedded ambition to also depict the ‘free love’ 60s and 70s as they were lived, not as they were romanticised by subsequent generations of storytellers. But this does not mean that we’re getting a comfortable ‘slice of life’ story about what life could have been back then, and neither is the story free from flourish and stylisation. A hallmark of Pynchon’s postmodern novels is their very rejection of realism in favour of a screwball comedy approach to its otherwise puzzle-like plots and weighty intellectual subjects.

Bearing out the reclusive author’s obsession with conspiracy theories and the dizzying interconnectivity of modern life (as enabled to a feverish degree by corporations and the various media), ‘Vice’ is also positioned nicely as a detective noir pastiche, making good on that genre’s predilection for rambling stories populated by eccentrics.

So thankfully, this isn’t Pynchon re-packaged as a slim-and-trim Hollywood-friendly noir. Which is good news for some, and bad news for others: it means things move at a slower pace… certainly a slower pace than what’s expected of today’s contemporary blockbusters. But it’s a joy to savour. Joaquin Phoenix continues to bring his A-game, playing Doc with the adequate air of bemusement and lazy compassion. But he’s aided by an ensemble cast too large to list, and while Josh Brolin is a frequent and amusing presence in this gallery of spirited grotesques, it’s the female characters that come forward most strongly.

Katherine Waterston convinces as the wounded but dangerous femme fatale crossed with girl who got away, and looms large as she continues to haunt Doc on his journey. But a brief appearance by Jena Malone proves to be the film’s emotional centre. An ex-junkie mother forced to don a fake set of ‘chompers’ to amend drug-induced dental atrophy, she’s a stark reminder of the dark underbelly that we often ignore when we consider this legendarily bohemian time period.

Inherent Vice will be showing at St James Cavalier Cinema, Valletta on March 21 at 15:00, March 27 and April 11 at 20:00 

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