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Non-Review Review: Inherent Vice

In many ways, Inherent Vice resembles its central character – former-hippie-turned-private-investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello.

Inherent Vice is prone to ramble and meander, stumbling across its central conspiracies as much by fate as by actual investigation. The logic is fuzzy, but the genius is clear. Navigating a complex web of seventies paranoia, it often seems as if Inherent Vice is playing a game of free association between its themes, stumbling upon some higher meta-physical plane where all the evils of the world (or, at least, Los Angeles) are connected by threads almost imperceptible.

Bad trip...

Bad trip…

Both Inherent Vice and Doc are hooked on their own particular drugs. Over the course of Inherent Vice, Doc makes it quite clear that heroine is just about the only dope he won’t take into his body. Inherent Vice itself is drawn the delightfully trippy far-out prose of Thomas Pynchon, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s script pausing intermittently to dump large quantities of existential musing on to the market. If Pynchon’s prose didn’t flow eloquently from actresses like Katherine Waterston and Jeannie Berlin, the audience might complain.

Running almost two-and-a-half hours, Inherent Vice is more than a little indulgent. Luckily, it is more than a little brilliant as well.

Lawyer up...

Lawyer up…

There is a delightful bitterness and wry irony that plays out over Inherent Vice‘s extended runtime. Exploring the painful and tragic passage from the idealism and utopianism of the sixties into the cynicism and paranoia of the seventies, Inherent Vice looks out at the world with an exhausted anger. There is a sense that the film has simply worn itself watching the gradual erosion of the counter-culture revolution, perverted and exploited by the very forces it sought to overthrow.

Pragmatism is the order of the day, and Inherent Vice revels in the strange bedfellows that emerge from those turbulent time. Early on, Doc is consulted by a black militant trying to track down his business partner, a neo-Nazi. When Doc points out the inherent contradiction, his client observes, “Turns out we had somewhat similar feelings about the government.” Doc spends a significant portion of Inherent Vice looking for Mickey Wolfman – “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi.” He also encounters the Gold Fang, which seems to be controlled by rich white guys.

Last supper...

Last supper…

The first time viewers catch a glimpse of “renaissance detective” Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, he appears in an advertisement for one of Wolfman’s housing estates consciously marketed towards hippies – offering a view of the city’s man-made canal system “that can only be described in two words: right on.” This is the detective who does not hesitate to describe Doc as “hippie scum.” As with a lot of Anderson’s output, Inherent Vice is fascinated by the ruthless exploitation and commercialisation of romantic idealism – the twisted American Dream.

During one car ride, Aunt Reet offers her own brief summary of the history of Los Angeles. It is a history of commodification and annexation. “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium, American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center, Tariq’s neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates.” Indeed, Inherent Vice offers a number of literal examples of that colonisation at work. What was once an empty lot embodying all of Doc and Sasha’s dreams becomes a front for a commercialised drug operation.

L.A.'s finest...

L.A.’s finest…

Inherent Vice suggests that this conversion and repurposing has extended beyond the land itself. After all, Chinatown offered a fairly damning indictment of the system that sought to control and restructure the literal landscape of Los Angeles. Inherent Vice hints that this terraforming project has moved beyond the physical realm, and that “the ancient forces of greed and fear” have begun an extensive remodelling on the nation’s psychological landscape. The American Dream has been rezoned.

That is the beauty (or horror) of all-consuming capitalism, a force that manages to turn the weapons of the opposition back upon themselves. All those sixties ideals about peace and love can be harnessed in service of the very establishment against which they rebelled. Weed and nitrous oxide give way to cocaine and PCP. Disillusioned hippies populate the narrative. “I thought I was helping my government,” one offers by way of justification. “But they were just using us.”

Hippie camouflage...

Hippie camouflage…

Another “recovering” idealist tells Doc, “They’re helping me. They’re helping me wake up from my bad hippie dream.” At one point, Sauncho Smilax relates the story of the old schooner, the Gold Fang. Belonging to an actor blacklisted by McCarthy, it had carried its host away to shame and disgrace. Years later, it returned triumphant. As for its host. “His politics had miraculously changed.” Now willing to appear in anti-communist propaganda pieces that can be screened to misguided audiences (“straight is hip”) he could be reformed and repurposed.

There is a question as to how much Doc himself is complicit in all this. Nowhere near as cynical as any of the other former hippies featured in the narrative, Doc still involves himself with the establishment. “What would a nice girl like me want with a filthy hippie like you?” Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball playfully asks, after a fairly significant betrayal of Doc’s confidence. Much as Doc and Bigfoot might hate each other, they have a weird and compelling co-dependence. Inherent Vice seems to accept that the pragmatism of the seventies is a necessity, for all it horrors.

Having his pancake and eating it too...

Having his pancake and eating it too…

After all, the narrative is never less than sympathetic to Doc. We are reminded that he has “done good”, and Inherent Vice seems to reward his earnestness and sincerity time and again. When he asks Penny to break into some classified files for him, she shrugs it off. Doc is shocked at the casualness of the civil rights violation. “Don’t be so naive,” she warns Doc. The picture of Richard Nixon hanging in the corner serves to remind the audience just how out of touch Doc is with the world around.

As befits its protagonist, Inherent Vice is a decidedly relaxed film – moving quite consciously at its own pace and in its own time. Anderson proves himself quite the match for Pynchon; neither writer is particularly concerned with plotting or structure. Instead, tangents are not divergences, but become the point of themselves. Doc never seems to arrive anywhere in a straight line, reality constantly contorting to put him where he needs to be when he needs to be there. Working as a private investigator seems easy if you are willing to let the universe take you where it needs you.

The American Dream, all shot to hell...

The American Dream, all shot to hell…

Pynchon’s long beautiful passages of prose are occasionally incorporated wholesale through narration from Aunt Reet. Those long eloquent monologues fit quite comfortably within Anderson’s long naturalistic shots. Much like Pynchon’s plotting, Anderson’s framing is willing to take its time. Long shots move tighter to their subjects with an understated elegance. Anderson is willing to give his superlative cast room to work, treating the camera as an eavesdropper that gets drawn deeper into the conversation as the characters move deeper into mystery.

Allowing the camera to move through various conversations at its own pace, Anderson captures some sense of confusion of the time; without ever cutting away, the camera starts a scene in one position and ends in a completely different place, with the conversation framed in a completely different manner. That is the beauty of Anderson’s work; without ever making a big deal of it or drawing attention to it, he asks the audience to wonder how they ended up where they are.

Reefer madness...

Reefer madness…

Inherent Vice is a movie that occasionally loses track of itself in its impressive runtime. In fact, its convoluted free-association plotting seems designed to frustrate those looking for a clear organic logic to their private investigator stories. However, Inherent Vice rewards those viewers who – like Doc – are willing to just let go and find themselves carried away by the world around them.

10 Responses

  1. A pretty crazy movie. However, it’s one that I always found some pleasure in. Even if I couldn’t wholly pin-point why. Good review.

  2. Completely off topic, but why do you call your movie reviews “non-review review”?

    • Because I don’t really adhere to a form or give a ranking that claims to be objective. Truth be told, I occasionally wander off on tangents or discuss subtext or context without little reference to the material film production itself. I hope that they offer some insight or value to those reading them, but I’d be reluctant to classify them as traditional long-form reviews.

  3. “Running almost two-and-a-half hours, Inherent Vice is more than a little indulgent. Luckily, it is more than a little brilliant as well.”

    One of the best descriptions of the film I’ve heard to date.

  4. Cool review yo, I hope to see this film because I’ve heard a lot of buzz about it in recent times.

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