I haven’t read the Thomas Pynchon novel Paul Thomas Anderson adapted for screen in the movie of the same name, Inherent Vice. However, I have read Pynchon’s great The Crying of Lot 49, and I’m fairly well versed in film noir and neo-noir. When I got wind, months back, that Anderson was writing and directing a Pynchon novel, I was very, very excited. I got to see the final product on Saturday night, and the more it sits with me, the more I love it.
Like all great detective fiction, the story begins with a dame walking in the door. This one’s name is Shasta, and the door she walks in is a beach bungalow belonging to Larry “Doc” Sportello, P.I., and with those two details, already the flavor of this particular neo-noir has been set. And the film really is all about the flavor. This is a film dealing in quirky characters with outrageous names like Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, Puck Beaverton, and Glenn Charlock (a neo-Nazi whose name sounds an awful lot like Shylock), with 1970’s paraphernalia and set-dressing, and with the fog of smoke and ocean mist that muddles the air.
Anyway, she’s in trouble, and she needs Doc’s help, but, also like most film noir, the plot is not the point. Have you seen The Maltese Falcon? The Big Sleep? There are fronts upon fronts, players double-dealing players, people claimed dead or missing who are tucked away in some seedy place out-of-town, trying to stay hidden from the unnameably corrupt and powerful bad guys behind the whole racket. Some answers are given. Some connections made. But it never makes sense. Inherent Vice is no different, except part of the nonsensical nature is clearly a reflection of Doc’s constant drug use, and part of that nonsensical nature is clearly a reflection of the times: Nixon, Manson, the Vietnam War, and the culture abandoning the peace and love of the hippies. In short, few things made sense in 1970, so why should crime be any different?
Inherent Vice closest of kin might be The Big Lebowski, but it lacks the in-your-face style of scenes like the bowling dream. Still, it’s goofy, absurdist, drug-addled. It’s humor is too. There’s even slapstick and farce. But what really makes Inherent Vice a joy is the cast and their quirky characters. Of course, at the top of the list is Joaquin Phoenix as Doc. His transformation of face and body language elevate both humorous and emotional scenes. I’ve never enjoyed watching him more. Following him closely in the joy-bringing is Josh Brolin’s Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who acts as Doc’s frenemy in the “glass house” (on the police force). Brolin sports a flat-top buzz cut, a penchant for phallic foods, and a big ol’ hate-on for hippies. Martin Short puts in a remarkably realistic, though still overtly comedic performance as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. Benicio del Toro takes another stab at playing lawyer to a drug addict, though here he’s as vocally articulate as I’ve ever seen him. Jena Malone and Owen Wilson are also wonderfully cast.
I look forward to seeing Inherent Vice again to not only revisit these characters, but perhaps put more pieces of the plot together, and pay more attention to the film-making Paul Thomas Anderson is subtly employing. Highly recommended for fans of neo-noir, Paul Thomas Anderson, and quirky character-driven movies.