Journey Through the Past, by David Bax
Right from the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, when Joanna Newsom’s sweet, jaded voice narrates a scene in which a private detective’s old flame shows up asking for help, the hallmarks of film noir are intentionally recognizable. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello is our Sam Spade. His ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) is our Brigid O’Shaughnessy. But this isn’t the early 1940’s in black and white. This story’s backdrop is the Los Angeles of 1970, where the sunshine and the pot smoke seep into every warm-hued leisure suit and cling to the upholstery. David Crank’s production design and Robert Elswit’s cinematography are so tactile that Inherent Vice feels like the most 3D movie of the year without ever requiring glasses.
So we have a sprawling, hilarious take on detective fiction featuring a stoner PI interacting with all manner of Angelenos while half-trying to uncover a very complicated mystery. If you haven’t yet heard Inherent Vice compared to The Big Lebowski, expect to soon and often. But the similarities mostly stop at the surface. The Coens tend to present films that are meticulous, complete objects. Even in riffing on the notoriously convoluted The Big Sleep, they couldn’t help but wrap up every mystery unambiguously, down to the last toe. Anderson clearly spends just as much time on his work but the final results don’t fit into any package. Especially from 2007’s There Will Be Blood on, his films are so big that they seem to bleed through the edges of the frame. We get the impression that he’s showing us as much as he possibly can contain on the screen but that these worlds continue to exist, both temporally and geographically, outside of what we can see. Unlike Lebowski, Sportello only uncovers more and more layers of mystery. Inherent Vice doesn’t drill down to a solution; it expands toward oblivion.
Anderson has never been as overtly postmodern as the Coens, either. Certainly, he borrows from his influences just as much as a collage artist like Quentin Tarantino, but I doubt if he ultimately cares whether or not you’ve seen The Big Sleep. Just like any good action director can put together a car chase without conspicuously referencing The French Connection, Anderson respects and maintains the tropes of a detective movie but mostly uses them as a skeleton for his particular story. It may be impossible for anyone of Anderson’s talent to traffic in such a well-worn genre without commenting on it but being meta-textual is never the focus. As a result, Inherent Vice is both more and less a genre film than The Big Lebowski.
Having only been lucky enough to see the film once, I would have trouble describing the plot – or, more accurately, plots – to you. Shasta wants Doc to look into the planned kidnapping of her rich boyfriend, Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts, brilliant as usual). Also, a man named Tariq (Michael Kenneth Williams) wants Doc to help him collect money owed to him by one of Wolfman’s bodyguards. Also, a woman named Hope (Jena Malone) wants Doc to track down her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), whom she believes is not dead as presumed. Also, Doc’s foil and nemesis on the police force, Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, is hounding him, possibly for sport and possibly for reasons having to do with his murdered ex-partner. This is to say nothing of the involvement of a masseuse (Hong Chau), a lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), a district attorney (Reese Witherspoon), a deranged dentist (Martin Short), a hitman (Peter McRobbie) and one of Doc’s wealthy, imposing former clients (Martin Donovan). These stories are all connected or they aren’t. But Anderson and Phoenix establish a momentum of narrative and character that ties the whole thing together like a good rug.
What does ring through the noise, loud and clear, is an appraisal of the worlds of various hippies and squares three years after the summer of love. As was sharply illustrated in Peter Gessner’s 1968 documentary, Last Summer Won’t Happen, the persistent idea of the peace and love flower children stems almost entirely from a few months in 1967 and was quickly replaced or infected with paranoia and anger on both sides of the cultural divide. Anderson looks at the counterculture and sees untrusting tribalism with a constant threat of violence. A black man returns from prison to find that his neighborhood has been gutted by a developer who consorts with neo-Nazis. A young woman recounts a tale of being used by her seemingly enlightened boyfriend as a sexual object to be traded. A bully cop dresses up as a hippie stereotype to sell houses in a commercial. And nobody’s consciousness is expanded by hallucinogens. The drug use in the film is seen as pitiful at best, dehumanizing at worst.
Anderson’s bitterness courses through everything here. But instead of souring the film, it is churned into comedy that is sometimes sardonic and sometimes glibly absurd. For the latter, look especially to a scene in which Phoenix and Del Toro order lunch, rattling off increasingly disgusting and ridiculous menu items and substitutions. Somewhere down the line, it might be interesting to parse that scene for metaphors and allusions but it’s more than okay to save that for future viewings and just laugh out loud at it for now.
Inherent Vice may be massive and ponderous and undoubtedly an “art film,” but it’s also likely to ignite an obsessive cult of multiple viewings similar to that of Lebowski. By equally satisfying intellectuals and eager aesthetes, it has already secured its place in the culture, not to mention a spot on the list of movies that will inspire the next generation of film school students.