In a year when movie-makers were challenged by declining viewing figures and were taking no chances with experimental or risky ventures, Inherent Viceshines out as an exception. Paul Thomas Anderson has faithfully adapted Thomas Pynchon’s novel, which has won him a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination. For a stoner novel to morph into a stoner movie is showing some cojonesin this climate. Self-indulgent films are things of the past it would seem, but Anderson grasps the bull by both…horns.
But like many labours of love it comes at a price. Dammed with faint praise by several critics for being a movie one has to see at least twice (come on, at over two-and-a-half hours long, who has the time?), but eulogised by others, I have to admit to a bit of fence-sitting.
Expecting the plot to be difficult to follow and told the actors mumble their lines (I am currently re-watching The Wirewith subtitles and finally I get it), the first half of the movie zips along – if you can say that about watching people smoking a lot of weed. No problem hearing, and the Singapore crowd were howling with laughter, so no lost in translation either.
‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a washed–up relic of the 1960s, hanging out on the beach, never far from a joint and eking out a living as a PI. He is jolted out of his stupor when his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), comes to him and asks him to find out what happened to her married lover, a big-shot property developer, who has disappeared.
The quest is not simple: it encompasses corrupt property deals; a dope-smuggling gang, Golden Fang, with a yacht of the same name; a vanished heroin-addicted musician (Owen Wilson); a sex-crazed dentist (Martin Short); Doc’s current girlfriend, the Deputy DA (Reese Witherspoon); a sleazy marine insurance man (Benicio Del Toro); an oriental brothel with links to the gang and whose girls love nothing better than to go down on each other; and an LAPD detective, ‘Bigfoot’ (Josh Brolin), who hates hippies and is always busting Doc’s ass. You can see why the movie is two-and-a-half hours long.
There are echoes of several celebrated Hollywood films here – The Big Lebowksi,Chinatown, The Big Sleep, LA Confidential– but Anderson, while drawing on his earlier Boogie Nightsand Magnolia successes withhis ensemble of cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer David Crank and composer Jonny Greenwood, reins in Phoenix for a more restrained performance than in The Master, while delivering a film that ticks all the production boxes. But it can’t quite decide on its genre – is it a thriller, a film noir, a love story or a simple comedy? Not that it really matters, except to add to the length.
His Doc is a gentle figure, doesn’t bat an eyelid to the clichéd ‘What’s up Doc?’ greeting; his characters yo-yo between sinister and slapstick – Short’s Dr Blatnoyd turns in a Austin Power’s-like performance of sheer gold; Brolin, Del Toro, Wilson and Waterston all contribute to the cookie, druggy aura of Anderson’s time-warp. His LA is punctuated by Neil Young songs and references 70s America, post Charles Manson and the rise of Nixon. It is both atmospheric and a pleasure to watch, while generating both humour and tension simultaneously.
It did not worry me that some of the loose ends do not tie up – after all life ain’t like that. Instead we follow Doc on his labour of love (for Shasta) while he takes on the full might of the LA underworld with help from unexpected places. About two-thirds through his personal odyssey I feel that I want the movie to end; it becomes rather self-indulgent (and that is a BIG box-office turn-off these days as I have noted), as if we, the audience, are also expected to be stoned and wafting through the movie on a cloud of fragrant smoke.If you are of that predisposition, then I expect the time would simply pass and you would come out feeling fulfilled and redeemed. Despite all its good points, I certainly would not want to see more than once.