Movie Review: Inherent Vice (2014)
The only Thomas Pynchon I’ve read—and that was 30 years ago—was “The Crying of Lot 49,” which I found bizarre, beautifully written, very L.A., and almost completely incomprehensible.
The movie “Inherent Vice,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and based upon Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, shares with “Lot 49” everything from outsized names (Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax) to the pungency of L.A. at the end of the 1960s (drugs and hippies, Orange County Republicans and real estate, skateboarders and bikers) to incomprehensibility. Halfway through, I thought, “It’s like ‘Chinatown,’ but with the Dude rather than Jake Gittes as the P.I., and steeped in the spacey nihilism of the 1970s rather than the grittiness of the 1930s.” Then I thought, “Actually, it’s just a lot like ‘The Big Lebowski.’ The stoner take on noir. The detective work that goes nowhere. Except ...”
Except, I thought, it’s not as good. The tone is off. It’s smart, well-acted, but ...
And then it hits you: Is the problem the director?
I say all of this with trepidation. In 2007, after seeing Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” at the Guild 45th, I dismissed it. I thought it wasn’t quite there. Then a few years ago my friend Vinny forced me to rewatch it. And I was blown away.
So maybe I’m missing something here, too. Maybe I need to see it again. That, at least, is an option with Anderson. Even when his movies don’t quite connect, you still want to see them again.
“Inherent Vice” opens the way all noir detective movies open: a girl enters the office of the detective with a case. Except here, the office is a run-down near-breachfront apartment, the P.I. is a pot-smoking slacker, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), less hippy than fallen hipster, while the girl, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter), is Doc’s former girlfriend, and now paramour of real estate mogul Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She talks vaguely, and circularly, of a plot to kidnap him and put him in a mental institution. She’s worried for him. Doc is worried for her. He still loves her, you can tell. Soon, she goes missing.
Other cases, connected to this one, keep turning up at Doc’s doorstep. Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth “Omar” Williams), fresh out of prison, wants Doc to find his former cellmate, Glen Charlock, a member of the Aryan brother and current Wolfmann bodyguard. He also wants him to find his old neighborhood, which has been razed for one of Wolfmann’s new developments: Channel View Estates. Blacks being booted for the whites. In the development, at the end of a cul-de-sac, Doc finds a brothel, gets hit on the head, and wakes up next to a very dead Charlock while dozens of members of the LAPD train guns on him. They’re led by Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, in a standout peformance), a crew-cutted chest-thumper, who earned his nickname by beating up suspects, and who has a comic oral fixation with black phallic symbols—mostly chocolate-covered bananas. In turns, we find out he’s 1) smarter than we thought, 2) henpecked at home, 3) disrespected or at least disconnected at work. He has issues. And he’s the closest thing Doc will have to a partner in the movie.
He’s also the subject of one of the film’s more meaningful lines. The last time we see him, he literally breaks down the door to Doc’s beachhouse, glowers down at a stoned Doc, takes a puff of his joint, then eats the rest of it. It’s almost an “I-drink-your-MILKSHAKE!” moment, isn’t it? Stunned through his haze, Doc says something like, “Take it easy, brother,” and we get this exchange:
Bigfoot: I ain’t your brother.
Doc: No, but you need a keeper.
Nice. And both in the simian and Biblical sense. Maybe we all do.
Another case that winds up on Doc’s doorstep? Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) wants him to find her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson). If almost everyone in the movie has a habit of going missing, Coy keeps turning up in Doc’s path and on Doc’s TV. There he is disrupting a speech by Pres. Nixon before a right-wing “Vigilant California” rally. So is he a left-wing agitator? Not really. He’s an informer now for the feds, and the disruption is supposed to give him street cred. But he wants out. Except there is no out. That’s why he’s missing. He’s staying away from his wife and child to protect them.
All of these various mysteries soon revolve around an organization called the Golden Fang, which is either an Indochinese drug-smuggling cartel or an association of Orange County dentists. Or both. The latter is led by Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a coke-snorting, secretary-schtupping mess, who dies in a trampoline accident off-screen. But it’s not an accident.
Paying the rent
“Inherent Vice” has all the trappings of a noir detective story but not much is solved. We want right angles and get curves, endings and get fizzle. There’s a paranoid sense of a menace, a monstrosity shifting the world beneath our feet, but it’s not just paranoia. It’s Gov. Reagan releasing mental patients, and in effect privatizing mental health care (as he would do nationally as president), and it’s in one of these institutions where Doc finally finds Michael Wolfmann, who made the mistake of thinking he could give away his real estate holdings. It’s the collusion of money and politics, which is backed by shocktroops both public (LAPD) and private (the Aryan Brotherhood). It’s the return of Shasta, who was never kidnapped or killed, as Doc feared; she just went away for a while. But she returns damaged goods. Wolfmann abused her sexually, and she liked it, thrived on it, and still wants it. And Doc gives it to her. That scene—love turning to sadomasochism—is a death-of-the-sixties moment. It’s Woodstock becoming Altamont, the hope of RFK becoming the reality of Nixon.
Which is why, I assume, Doc engineers the ending he does. Sitting on a stash of Golden Fang heroin, he brokers a deal with Vigilant California bigwig Crocker Fenway (‘90s indie favorite Martin Donovan, in a pitch-perfect cameo): the return of the heroin for the release of Coy Harlingen from his informant obligations; so he can return to his wife and child; so Doc can have ahappy ending, even if it’s not his.
Their dealmaking conversation is instructive:
Doc: How much money would I have to take from you so I don’t lose your respect?
Crocker (smiles): A bit late for that. People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent.
The look Doc gives him on that one. Rent as a sucker’s game. You and me playing by the rules even though the game is fixed. There’s a sense here, and throughout the movie, that this is where we went wrong. During this pivotal moment, the left got stoned while the right got busy. It shifted the ground. It rigged the game even more.
I don’t know. Maybe I’ve written myself into liking the film more than I did while watching it. In the theater, I kept thinking Anderson was screwing up. Despite everything happening on screen, it all felt flat, extended, poorly edited.
But I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. There’s something there. If we could just figure out what it is.