Inherent Vice (2014)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on January 7, 2015 @ tonymacklin.net.

You should take brownies, instead of popcorn, to Inherent Vice.

The film is a heady snack.

Director/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson blows smoke for 148 minutes - the film's essence is captured by an image of smoke curling in the air.

Adapted from the novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is set in Southern California in 1970. It occurs at the end of an era - after the Manson murders - when the sensibility of the '60s was fading away.

Communes were being replaced by corporations and institutions. Hipness was succumbing to authority.

The mean streets of Raymond Chandler were now the slick streets.

In those environs in Inherent Vice, Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) exists. He's a low-key, pothead private eye.

A former girl friend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) comes to Doc for help. She now is the mistress of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She tells Doc she wonders about loyalty, since she's involved in a plot by Mickey's wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boy friend to kidnap Mickey and place him in an insane asylum.

Then Shasta disappears. On the phone a Lt. Detective tells Doc, "She's gone." These are Anderson's words, not Pynchon's. Doc thinks that may mean she's dead. Meanings often are unclear in Doc's world.

Doc goes on a peripatetic journey looking for Shasta and Mickey.

He's in a world of head shops, "massage" parlors, and towering edifices. It's peopled by political operatives, neo-Nazis, black nationalists, arms dealers, a drug cartel, and other dangerous, nebulous groups.

Besides trying to help Shasta, Doc meets Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), an informant under duress and in hiding.

Doc's odyssey brings him in continual conflict with Lt. Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). The soft-boiled detective meets the hard-boiled cop.

Often addled, Doc seems to want to do the right thing, but doesn't always know what it is. He's trying to cope in a world of alienation.

The past is a major element in Inherent Vice. To a black man in his office, Doc says, "blast from the past." [The book has Doc thinking the line with a different character and setting.] Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) says to Doc, "Old times aside." And Coy tells Doc that in his band, "There's been a big turnover in personnel."

Like Gatsby, Doc's past is a powerful driving force. Both Gatsby and Doc have a woman that they're pursuing - Daisy Fay Buchanan and Shasta Fay Hepworth. Fay is their faith.

One nice irony is that Katherine Waterston, who plays Shasta, is the daughter of Sam Waterston, who played Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (1974).

Like Scott Fitzgerald and Pynchon, Anderson pays homage to the past.

Anderson's screenplay makes some crucial changes but basically seems loyal to the book.

Anderson adds a narrator - Doc's assistant Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) - to help lead us down the sandy path.

Pynchon's novel is teeming with allusions to pop culture, music, tv, and movies. Especially movies. Usually when a movie is mentioned by a character or thought of by Doc, Pynchon even includes its date of release.

But, like Gillian Flynn's screenplay for Gone Girl, the screenplay by Anderson leaves out allusions that give the book more, personal meaning. A few make it through. Mickey's wife Sloane tells Doc the lighting in her home was done by Jimmy Wong Howe. Howe was a famous Director of Photography. It's in the book and in the movie. But the movie drops the allusions to Howe's films with actor John Garfield, who influenced Doc so much in the book.

There are myriad allusions to Garfield and his films in the novel. Doc's dad Leo uses the name Frank Chambers to check into motels. Frank Chambers was the character played by Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Doc purchases a suit Garfield wore in that film. One character says to Doc, "I thought you always wanted to be John Garfield."

Garfield was blacklisted in Hollywood for not naming names to HUAC.

Garfield is an apt model for Doc. But Anderson omits him from his film.

Anderson also changes the ending. At the end of the movie, Doc is in a car, but he's not alone. And he has a hint of a gleam in his eyes. It's effective cinema.

Director Anderson has a penchant for language, and he is able to create vital scenes of conversations. People talk, and Anderson listens. In one crucial scene - taken verbatim from Pynchon's dialogue, but cut short - Doc and Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan) have a conversation that has considerable impact. Anderson really knows how to shoot such scenes. They have a recognition of the effect the spoken word can have.

In another scene, Lt. Det. Bigfoot makes a statement to Doc that is in the book. He says, "I hope this won't be another one of those unabridged paranoid hippie monologues." Anderson must have smiled with self-effacing humor when he filmed that conversation.

Inherent Vice is character driven, and the cast thrives.

Joaquin Phoenix, as Doc, may be as good as he's ever been. With mutton chops and hair askew, Doc is eccentric and erratic. Remind anyone of some actor?

Doc slaps face, wakes up next to a corpse on the beach, slaps Shasta's bare buttocks, and screams looking at a photo. In Pynchon's novel when Doc sees the photo, he does not scream. Doc's scream comes in another place. But, as misplaced as this may be, it's probably Phoenix's patented improvisation.

Doc is struggling for control.

Bigfoot's wife yells at Doc on the phone, "Mr. Moral Turpitude, himself."

Phoenix captures the weird vulnerability of Doc.

Katherine Waterston is both girlish and knowing as Shasta. Waterston has a memorable nude scene. About that scene, she told an interviewer, "I love the words, and it started with words." Her career is on ascendancy.

Josh Brolin - with buzz haircut - makes Lt. Det. "Bigfoot" a barrel of a character, unable to fulfill his plans or yearnings.

Owen Wilson brings humanity to Coy Harlington, who is fighting to survive as an outsider, but is pulled into being an insider.

Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Jena Malone, Sasha Pieterse, Joanna Newsom, et al., add to the odd assortment of characters.

Director Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit create a vivid atmosphere. Anderson uses the colors red, white, and blue to emphasize the American experience. One character wears a blue jacket and red turtleneck, another wears a red jacket and blue shirt. Some scenes have a blue cast over them.

Doorways abound. Doorways of beads, wood, and metal.

The original musical score is by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Although the film is set in 1970, Anderson dips into 1972 for two songs by Neil Young from albums released in 1972 [It may be startling for some to realize Eminem was born in 1972]. Young's Harvest - from the best selling album of 1972 - and Journey Through the Past give melancholy lilt to Inherent Vice.

Inherent Vice isn't for everyone. It's part lark, part dodo bird. It dances and trudges. It's flamboyant and nonsensical. It's sprawling and absurd. But it has its appeal if one allows it to.

Inherent Vice is a film that one should stay to watch until after the credits are over.

After the final credits Anderson dedicates his film, "For Ida."

It's probably Ida Lupino. In Pynchon's novel, Doc is aroused by the mere mention of her name. Ida Lupino was an actress and pioneer as one of the early successful female directors. She also starred with John Garfield in Out of the Fog (1941), a title which is relevant to Inherent Vice.

The credits are accompanied by music that has bounce, throb, and twang. Sax - who plays it?

The music at the end has evocative meaning. Guitar - and in the background the faint sound of surf.

After the credits these final words appear on the screen:


Under paving-stones, the beach!

Graffito, Paris, May 1968


The words are graffiti written on a wall during the student revolt in France in 1968. The freedom of the beach and nature survive under the stones of society.

In Pynchon's novel the words appear as an epigraph before the novel.

But now, instead of at the beginning of a book, they are at the end of a film.

Inherent Vice is like layers of sand.

And the beach and surf survive. Faintly.

At least for a while more.

© 2000-2019 Tony Macklin