Knowing this was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel and seeing the reviews most cunningly coin it ‘incoherent vice’, I was expecting an aesthetically pleasing albeit nonsensical stoner tale. Instead I viewed a hilarious, surprisingly linear romp through a hazy 70s neo noir Las Angeles. Indeed, even a plot that made sense… sort of… eventually.
Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a private investigator on the trail of a missing land developer, bumbles from one outlandish clue to the next, unveiling police corruption, lost loves, rehab clinic conspiracies, and a mysterious entity called ‘The Golden Fang’, which could be a boat or a cocaine cartel or a dentists consortium. There’s copious amounts of drugs and sex, but the film does not devolve into going ‘Isn’t the 70s funny? Ha Ha’. Though if Doc isn’t sucking on an oxygen mask, he’s bending backwards over a table to snort some high-grade coke.
Presented almost as a series of vignettes, each ‘clue’ involves Doc, undoubtedly high on something, investigating everyone from double agent Owen Wilson, to coke fiend dentist Martin Short, to crazed & corrupt LAPD cop and failed tv star Josh Brolin (a flawless, hilarious, somewhat disturbing performance). Each segment reveals some new tidbit to the overarching plot, or some heretofore unknown quirk or connection between parties. I was halfway expecting this to go nowhere, to end in a puff of grassy smoke, potential resolutions swirling away up into the atmosphere.
I also realized I could have watched Doc bound from scene to scene, literally all night.
The casting is superb. Joaquin Phoenix is sublime as Doc, the bumbling but sort of lovable hero, who owes no small debt to The Dude of The Big Lebowski fame. It feels like all of the rest of the big name actors belong more to the neo-noir world of 1970 than they do to their own present. Plenty of 70s movies have a habit of haphazardly dressing people up in bright colored hippie costumes. The period dress of Inherent Vice is colorful, but actually adheres to a style people conceivably enjoyed and wore. The desaturated color of fictional Gordita Beach paired with the impeccable soundtrack encapsulate the setting perfectly, and leave the viewer yearning for that sleepy beach bum lifestyle. At least for a while.
The meaning of the title is revealed via monologue late in the movie. ‘Inherent vice’ is an old shipping term, a label for cargo that is uninsurable due to its volatile and fragile nature — eggs for instance. It’s low hanging metaphorical fruit to extend this to the cast, to 70s America at large. But this is a fond, forgivable kind of vice. The movie warmly treats its cast, even its most degenerate goons. While I haven’t read the novel, I’ve read other Pynchon books and would have thought them nigh-unfilmable. Paul Thomas Anderson not only succeeded, but made one of those movies that I knew, before it even ended, would become an instant favorite.