Friday, January 23, 2015

Inherent Vice: A very bad trip

Inherent Vice (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, graphic nudity, sexual content, constant drug use and occasional violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.23.15

This deranged flick is best imagined as an unholy love child spawned by Chinatown and every Sam Spade novel Dashiell Hammett never wrote.

Glimpsed through a peyote haze.

Private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, left) and maritime lawyer Sauncho
Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) watch from an oceanside restaurant as a suspicious
schooner — recently re-christened the Golden Fang — makes its way into port,
its purpose certain to be illicit.
Thomas Pynchon is challenging under the best of circumstances, which also can be said of director/scripter Paul Thomas Anderson, whose oeuvre features aggressively peculiar films such as Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and The Master. Put these two eclectic minds together, and the results are far from the best of circumstances.

At its better moments, Anderson’s take on Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a funny pastiche of 1940s film noir atmosphere and attitude, filtered through the drug-hazed cheesecloth of 1970s hippiefied Los Angeles. The characters are manic, the dialog heightened far beyond stratospheric visibility, and the unfolding plot a crazy-quilt conspiracy that gets more flamboyantly, hilariously preposterous by the minute.

You can’t help admiring the self-indulgent audacity ... except, well, too much rapidly becomes way too much. The stoner somnambulance through which every character delivers his lines becomes trés tedious, and a tedious film wears out its welcome long before the clock winds down on its 148-minute running time.

Anderson, it should be noted, never makes short films. He should consider doing so.

Pynchon’s 2009 novel exists in the same seemingly random, psychedelic fever that was typical of Richard Brautigan’s work in the 1960s and ’70s. If so-called “free jazz” is music without melody, then Brautigan’s prose was words without context: sentences strung together solely to befuddle and amuse. Brautigan was adored by the counter-counter set, who no doubt found his books far more compelling when read aloud under the influence of LSD.

Inherent Vice is similarly haphazard, with bizarre characters wandering into our protagonist’s landscape like the pink elephants that haunt somebody enduring delirium tremens. We must consider Pynchon’s history: As we’re reminded in a delightful December analysis in the Los Angeles Times, Pynchon’s third novel, 1973’s Gravity’s Rainbow, won the National Book Award ... “and caused the Pulitzer Committee to cancel that year’s fiction prize after it found the book ‘unreadable’ and ‘obscene.’ ”

Inherent Vice is somewhat more coherent, but that’s not saying much. Indeed, it could be argued that the entire story is a marijuana-induced nightmare experienced by main character Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix): In other words, nothing that we see is real. The film dares us to imagine this from the very first scene, as Doc views the unexpected arrival of former girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Wilson) with surprise, and she murmurs, almost to herself, “Thinks he’s hallucinating.”

That notion likely will make the film work better for some viewers, but it’s too easy an explanation. More complicated is the possibility that some of what we see is real ... and some isn’t.

I’ve serious doubts, for example, about the actual existence of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who both narrates this saga — providing indispensable linking commentary that helps us over the rough spots — and serves as Doc’s sounding board. Eventually, it seems odd that nobody else seems to interact with Sortilège, suggesting that she’s the personification of Doc arguing with himself.


The story takes place in 1970 in the fictitious oceanside community of Gordita Beach (which, for those of us who grew up in Southern California, bears a striking resemblance to the Manhattan Beach where Pynchon lived in the 1960s). Doc is a slacker private detective who probably lucks into just enough cases to keep him well stocked with grass, which he enjoys abundantly during his off hours. Which are plentiful.

Shasta Fay, long unseen, wanders back into his life with a wild tale of getting sucked into a larcenous scheme that even her laissez-faire sensibilities finds unpalatable: She fears that her current lover, über-wealthy and sleazy real estate mogul Mickey Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is being groomed for the funny farm by his sexpot wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her current lover.

Before Doc can fully digest this scenario, he gets another case from Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), a Black Guerilla activist who made the mistake of getting involved with a member of the same Aryan Brotherhood gang that — surprise, surprise — works as bodyguards for the aforementioned Wolfmann.

Yet another client pops up: former heroin junkie Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), who wistfully asks Doc to uncover the truth about her missing husband, surf-rock saxophonist Coy (Owen Wilson), believed dead but ... perhaps not.

Doc doesn’t get far before he’s implicated in a murder: a development that gladdens the heart of former boyhood pal Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), now a police detective working at Parker Center, who’s only too happy to play rough with poor Doc. Ah, but Bigfoot isn’t destined to be that lucky; Doc’s get-out-of-jail-free card is maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), who springs our hero and spins an unlikely yarn (like we haven’t heard plenty of those already?) of a San Pedro-bound schooner re-christened the Golden Fang.

Oddly enough, “Golden Fang” also is the corporate name of a consortium of dentists who may have their teeth in the international heroin trade. They’re personified by cocaine-snorting Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. (Martin Short), who has become an unpleasant Svengali to a young woman (Sasha Pieterse, as Japonica Fenway), whom Doc once “rescued” from a drug cult.

Nibbling around the edges are FBI agents Flatweed and Borderline (Sam Jaeger, Timothy Simons); Jade (Hong Chau), manager of a dubious massage parlor dubbed Chick Planet; Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), a lawyer known as “the Dark Prince of Palos Verdes”; Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph, all but unrecognized), Doc’s sorta-kinda receptionist, who secretly loves him; and Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), a deputy district attorney who serves as Doc’s occasional “flatlander” bedmate.

And no doubt several others, but one does tend to lose track...

For poor Doc, confusion rapidly turns into heightened wariness; as the saying goes, being paranoid doesn’t mean that the world isn’t out to get him. But he doggedly marches on, occasionally scrawling screwball notes that better reflect his state of mind, than anything having to do with the increasingly labyrinthine case.

You can’t call much of what the massive cast does “acting,” since almost everybody delivers lines in a slow, sleepy fog that reflects Doc’s often addled sensibilities. The one exception is the eternally stoic Brolin, who tears into Bigfoot’s tough-cop talk with the ferocity of a hyena devouring a recent kill.

Bigfoot also has a tendency to, ah, enjoy chocolate-covered bananas with an intensity that can only be called carnal, which merely heightens HIS weirdness.

Phoenix gets considerable mileage out of his vacant stares and s-l-o-w double-takes: all of them well-timed, many of them quite amusing. But two hours-plus of such line readings quickly becomes b-o-r-i-n-g.

One scene, however, is a stand-out: a confession of sorts by Shasta Fay, who gets pretty far into a blend of self-analysis and seductive desire before we realize that Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit are orchestrating another of their impressively long single takes ... made even more remarkable by the fact that Wilson handles the entire scene stark naked, fully exposed to the camera, without ever breaking concentration. We cannot help but marvel at her focus and intensity.

Ultimately, though, the entire film collapses under the weight of its own precious pretentions. Pynchon and Anderson aren’t the first to layer post-WWII pee-eye tropes against the psychedelic ’60s; Elliot Gould was wholly unconvincing as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in director Robert Altman’s 1973 take on The Long Goodbye, which updated the action to that same era. Didn’t work, for all sorts of reasons.

Neither does Anderson’s Inherent Vice. It’s one of those odd films that impresses during its impudent first act, suggesting great things to follow ... but then becomes a dull, dreary slog that has us eyeing our watches and the theater exit, desperately awaiting an opportunity to flee.

A genuine hallucination, one imagines, would lived up to its potential more successfully.

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