For those who have never been high, the new film “Inherent Vice” will give you a pretty good sense of it. You’ll have no idea what’s going on, or who that guy or this girl onscreen is. You’ll wonder whether you’re supposed to know who he is, and muse softly on why he might be there. In the end, though, you won’t be sure you care.
The central idea for director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is a good concept: Combine the classic film noir genre (dame walks in trailing a cloud of trouble) with 1970s druggie hippy beach culture (chick walks in trailing both trouble and pot smoke). Sadly, the brilliant idea is lost in confusion, gratuitous vice, and a bloated run time of two and half hours.
Main character Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) never turns down a blunt or a mystery. He’s a private eye of sorts, when he can remember what he’s investigating. The rest of the time, he hangs in his far-out pad on the beach, smoking what he’s got. When his former flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterson), goes missing, Doc is moved to get up from the couch and wander through the underbelly of Los Angeles looking for her.
In this case, the underbelly naturally includes the Los Angeles Police Department, the district attorney’s office, and respectable members of society, as well as beach bums, drug-running gangs, black militants, and what appear to be Asian prostitutes.
They appear to be because it’s never clear what is happening or whether what is happening is inside Doc’s drug-addled brain or real life. Characters drift in and out of the frame with no introduction and exit again, leaving behind the faintest whiff that they were somehow significant to the story. For example, in the Asian prostitute scene, he visits a business with an X-rated name, becomes distracted when the girls start behaving badly, is hit on the head by an unknown assailant, and wakes up next to some other guy. Did he fantasize the girl-on-girl action? Who hit him? And why?
Is It Profundity Or THC?
To be fair, it can be amusing to watch Doc try to ask serious questions of a key witness while giggling from laughing gas, or try to remember what he’s supposed to ask a businessman while under the effects of a particularly powerful bong hit. The script, however, never brings the viewer along. Doc may eventually realize what clue he is finding as it makes its way through the fog, but the audience is left in the haze.
The dialogue retains traditional film-noir cadence: stilted, precious sentences, rich metaphors, and dark observations on society. A voice-over adds to it at random times without relieving confusion: Calling out Gov. Reagan for closing mental health programs, meditating on the nature of time, naming people who appear without explaining why. The effect is that Very Important Things That Are Profound are being said, but they are as temporary as a heroin high.
Fitting the era of free love and no rules, the film pushes the R rating to its limit. Constant swearing, heavy drug use, and some violence don’t hold a candle to the sexual content. Innuendo happens in almost every scene and sexual acts happen in several and are graphically portrayed, including full nudity.
What ‘Inherent Vice’ Should Have Been
The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing ’70s California in both its hippy glory and upscale architecture. The soundtrack is also wonderful, with songs of the era woven throughout with more than a tinge of irony. A string of big-name actors make cameos in the film: Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Benecio Del Toro, Martin Short. They all seem to be having a great time. If only the audience were let in on the fun.
It’s a shame because it could have been fun indeed. If anything is ripe for skewering, it is California of the ’70s with its revolutionary, crazy, lofty ideals that morphed into the grasping California of the ’80s. The people hitting bongs in 1972 became the CPAs of 1982. There are plenty of great stories to be told about that era.
The entire movie feels like an inside joke relevant only to those who lived through the golden age of beach druggie culture in 1970s California or to those who, in their hearts, never left it behind.
Perhaps that explains why this film is so popular in Hollywood and why it will fall flat in the rest of the country. If someone were to tell the same story for the rest of us, it could be a wild trip.