Inherent vice is the tendency in physical objects to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components of which they are made, as opposed to deterioration caused by external forces and is the perfect title for this Thomas Pynchon novel adaptation of the same name.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), Inherent Vice presents us with a glimpse into the life of hippie and private eye Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and his investigation into the disappearance of billionaire land developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who just happens to be his ex-old lady’s new squeeze. Confused yet? Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) loves the billionaire, Doc loves Shasta, nothing but trouble ensues.
Following a surprise visit to Doc’s house where Shasta reveals a plot by Wolfmann’s wife and her lover to get him committed to a mental asylum, Shasta disappears along with Wolfmann. Drug-fuelled Doc gets on the case, determined to find her but while investigating a related case (involving one of Mickey’s bodyguards) inadvertently becomes a momentary murder suspect.
Enter Doc’s antagonist and LAPD nemesis, Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who spends the entire movie snarling at Doc and trying to nail him for anything he can.
The film begins with a sort of dreamy, casual narration by Joanna Newsom detailing the relationship between Doc and Shasta, a narration that continues throughout the film, and is quite possibly the only thing that holds the schizophrenic storyline together. From the first word spoken it is evident that Newsom is not an actress and this imbues the film with a documentary feel right from the start. I am not sure if this was intentional, as the subject matter is so whimsical and far-fetched that we continuously require Newsom to bring us back down to earth with her narration.
This film was difficult to review. Set in 1960s Los Angeles, it has a very sensual, sensory, surf noir feel about it, which is backed up nicely by the psychedelic paranoia of the storyline. It is wickedly funny and exceptionally well-acted but if you require a coherent story line to enjoy a film then this film is categorically not for you. Time has no meaning in this film. Meaning has no meaning in this film. But it sure is funny.
The film also has several notable actors on show. Other than Joaquin Phoenix in the starring role, Owen Wilson puts his effortless comic timing to good use in the role of tenor sax playing undercover officer, Coy Harligan and Benicio del Toro joins in the fun as Doc’s lawyer, fielding some cracker one-liners. Martin Short even briefly pops in as a Golden Fang dentist, coke-addict and obvious pervert and Maya Rudolph plays Doc’s over-sharing receptionist.
What is Golden Fang? Will Doc and Shasta’s love last forever? What did Coy Harligan actually even inform on? What did I just watch? These are questions we may never get the answers to. Is Inherent Vice a comment on the countercultural Californian wasteland of the 60s or merely an aimless series of acid-infused inventions? We may never know that either. But it’s a darkly comedic affair with some extremely intense scenes that are carried off beautifully by a dedicated and talented cast.
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