“Don’t worry. Thinking comes later.” – Larry “Doc” Sportello
Inherent Vice is an enjoyably delirious ride through early 1970’s Los Angeles, as long as you don’t try too hard to unravel the film’s unbelievably complex narrative.
The film follows the story of private detective and/or qualified GP (I was personally unclear on this) Larry “Doc” Sportello, a perfectly cast Joaquin Phoenix, who is on the drug-fuelled trail of a missing ex-girlfriend. Inherent Vice unfolds much like a film noir, that is, if film noir took an acid trip through Venice beach, and instead of fedoras, you get Joaquin Pheonix in tie-dye t-shirts and a straw sun hat.
If there’s one thing director Paul Thomas Anderson (of whom I am a huge fan) is best at, its characterization, his films have always been most memorable for their characters – whether it be Tom Cruise’s sex-obsessed misogynist Frank Mackey in Magnolia, or Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar winning oil baron, Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood. Anderson’s new outing is no exception, Sportello is an extremely memorable character, he’s everything we associate with the hippy movement of the 1960’s, and he tackles every problem with a typically laid-back demeanor and a joint in his hand; he’s somewhere loosely between Jake Gittes from Chinatown and Shaggy from Scooby Doo. The accompanying soundtrack matches Sportello’s character for delirious ‘trippiness’ too; I was half expecting a Dr. John or Jefferson Airplane record to come on at any moment.
Anderson also skillfully captures the historic moment of the late 60’s/ early 70’s. This was the end of the hippy movement, this was post-Manson/ post-Altamont Speedway (a free festival in the style of Woodstock that ended in the murder of Meredith Hunter), the hatred towards the counter-cultural movement by the establishment is perfectly embodied by law-enforcer Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a police detective who is constantly asking “Doc” whether his findings on the case are just hippy hallucinations.
The main problem with this film is its coherency, unless I’m being stupid, you literally have no idea what’s actually going on. There is simply too much happening, too many ambiguously told stories attempting to permeate into the main narrative, which at its simplest is an intriguing premise. It also doesn’t help when the majority of the characters seem to whisper in strange accents to each other and you find yourself just giving up on understanding what on earth they’re talking about. Anderson is usually so good at interweaving several different stories into one, but here, they all sort of meander meaninglessly into some marijuana induced haze that you can’t really make heads or tails of. By the end of the film, you wonder whether half of what you just saw even happened, or whether it was just one of Doc’s drug-influenced dreams.
So when ‘Doc’ Sportello says, right at the start of the film, “thinking comes later”, you really should listen to him, let the story unfold without questioning too much, and you will probably enjoy this film a lot more.