Odd is the word I’ll use to sum up the following film. Enjoyable ride, but don’t try and follow the plot. It could make your head hurt.
This is Inherent Vice.
The film begins at a beach house in Gordita Beach, California, 1970. Sitting inside is our protagonist and private investigator, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Out of nowhere, Doc receives a visit from an ex that he hadn’t seen in over a year: Shasta Fay, played by Katherine Waterson. Why’s Shasta suddenly here after so long? She needs the Doc’s help and couldn’t go to his office because it’s better of this is a secret rendezvous.
Shasta has a new lover, Mickey Wolfmann. Wolfmann’s wife and her boyfriend want Shasta to be involved with a plot to abduct Mickey and send him to a loony bin. Shasta, however, wants no part in this. As to where she’s staying now? She just goes where she can. Doc promises to get on it through the help of a district attorney he’s seeing.
And who is Wolfmann? He’s a rich real-estate developer with some interesting television ads. Doc gets some help from his Aunt Reet, played by Jeannie Berlin, who tells him that Wolfmann is technically Jewish, but wants to be a Nazi, so he sticks close to the Aryan Brotherhood bikers. Okay, then.
Oh, by the way, Doc’s hair isn’t exactly in the best condition, so going off the advice of Sortilège, played by Joanna Newsom, who also serves as the film’s narrator, Doc changes things up and puts pieces of blue ribbon in his hair.
At his office, Doc meets with Tariq Kahlil, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who is a member of the Black Guerilla Family. He needs the Doc’s help finding one of Mickey’s bodyguards, Glen Charlock, who owes Kahlil money for something he did for him back in 1967. Obviously Kahlil didn’t do it himself since the Aryan Brotherhood isn’t exactly fond of him. However, the two groups did have some similar views on the United States Government. Go figure.
When Kahlil got out of prison, he went to visit his old neighborhood, only to find it gone so Wolfmann could install the Channel View Estates.
So that’s where Doc goes, and ends up at Chick Planet Massage. Out pops a prostitute named Jade, played by Hong Chau. When Doc asks for Glen, Jade has to ask if he’s a police. Can’t be too careful. But he isn’t, so he’s briefed on the $14.95 pussy eating special, which Jade demonstrates on one of her colleagues, Bambi, played by Shannon Collis. Doc watches for a bit, but then goes off to find Charlock. He’s knocked on the head and falls out soon after.
Doc wakes up in the sand, next to Charlock’s body. Officers surround him, including Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin, who questions Doc in interrogation. He thinks that Charlock and Shasta were having sex. Doc gets some help from a Marine lawyer named Sauncho Smilax, played by Benicio Del Toro, who is willing to help the Doc or the police as he pleases. Bigfoot wants Doc to go undercover as an informant, but Doc refuses.
Doc is then hired by Hope Harlingen, played by Jena Marlone, who needs help finding her missing husband, Coy. Hope and Coy met in a rather squalid way: a bathroom stall. She’d gone in there to vomit, but found him sitting there. What ensued was a blend of vomit and shit, made better by the fact that Coy had a hard-on. I’m actually writing this. That’s not the ideal match-made in heaven, but it’s something, I guess. But Hope got off of the drugs, which once ruined her teeth and made her breasts hairy, and now works as a drug counselor. She doesn’t work get kids off of drugs, though- just sensible drug use.
Hope is optimistic (it’d be too easy to say hopeful) that her husband is alive. Meanwhile, she received a mysterious deposit that showed up in her account. The clerk at the bank told her that she’d just lost her slip.
Doc heads to the Wolfmann residence and meets up with Mickey Wolfmann’s wife, Sloane, played by Serena Scott Thomas. Sloane has a spiritual coach and fuck buddy, Riggs Warbling, played by Andrew Simpson. The mansion is filled with police offers just fooling around and there’s even a housekeeper offering to screw the Doc. Doc goes to a closet and finds it filled with ties, each of them having a naked woman on them. One of those women is Shasta, who is now missing.
After jumping around on Bigfoot’s car and getting the crap kicked out of him, Doc meets up with Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball, played by Reese Witherspoon. Kimball thinks that the Doc may have killed Charlock since he’s always on drugs and doesn’t remember things. He can’t argue against that. Who could, really?
Following this, Doc speaks with two agents, Agent Borderline, played by Timothy Simons, and Agent Flatweed, played by Sam Jaeger. These agents aren’t too good at their job. Hell, they’re even picking their noses. The feds have a particular interest in the murder case and offer Doc $300 a month plus The Book of Mormon. Mighty fine offer, but Doc shoots it down. He’s informed by the secretary, Petunia, played by Maya Rudolph, that he has a message from Jade- she apologizes for setting him up, but warns him to beware the Golden Fang.
That evening, Doc meets Jade in a foggy alley, where she explains that the Golden Fang is a group dedicated to smuggling drugs into the country. Doc then runs into Coy Harlingen, played by Owen Wilson, who is not dead at all. He’s supposed to be, but is now undercover as a saxophone player in a local band where no one will recognize him.
Smilax provides additional information to the Doc on the Golden Fang boat, it was stuck in the Bermuda Triangle for 50 years, then vanished. Mickey was last spotted on the boat and word is he may not be as missing as some believe…
This film was quite the interesting viewing experience. I saw this movie with a packed crowd at the cinema and everyone there had a good time, myself included. Inherent Vice, though, does become a bit of a chore to watch because of its very plot. I think the trailer did a good job explaining just how disconnected several plot threads are. Shasta comes to Doc because she needs some help with Mickey Wolfmann, but he ends up tangled in several different webs in the process. They don’t always connect back to the Wolfmann case, but they are just more problems for the Doc to fix because he’s the Doc.
I’ll amid that I have never read Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel that this film is based off of. However, from what I’ve read from actual movie critics and reviewers, Paul Thomas Anderson looks to have nailed the tone. If that tone was mellow, soothing, and downright bizarre, then he got it just right. This is a very chill movie that takes time with its pacing. It does pick up at times but, for the most part, this movie is in no hurry to get to its resolution. Considering the runtime of 148 minutes, I started to feel those two hours.
While I enjoyed a lot about Inherent Vice, it doesn’t really have the energy or vibrancy as something like American Hustle. Not really a fair comparison since they’re two very different films, but the two films do take place in the same decade and have their fair share of quirky characters.
Though while Hustle feels more like embracing the fun of the decade, the characters in Vice are still reeling from the end of the 1960s. The Manson murders are still fresh in people’s mind, protesters interrupt Richard Nixon rallies, and police officers have nothing but contempt for pot smoking hippies. This film does get the look and feel of the 1970s right, a large contrast for cinematographer Robert Elswit, who had recently helped craft a grittier look for Nightcrawler.
There are no clear answers in Inherent Vice. The film is less concerned with piecing these plots together and more about Doc trying to solve them. Though the Doc is very laid back and chill, we know that he’s been at this private investigation shtick for a long time and is…somewhat competent at it when he’s not staring into space or taking the strangest detective notes ever.
I’m not saying that Inherent Vice is a bad film, but this does require quite a bit of patience. Had it not been for a lot of the animated characters, I probably would have disliked this film quite a bit.
In fact, a major positive for the film is the casting. Joaquin Phoenix is great as the mellow, probably always high Doc who means well and wants to get to the bottom of as many cases as possible. It’s really in his facial expressions and how he reacts to situations and the people around him with amazement and a bit of stupor. When he’s trying to make heads or tails of what the hell is going on, I think he’s speaking for the audience as well.
This makes him a perfect counterpart for Joshh Brolin as Bigfoot- easily my favorite performance of the film. The man hates hippies with a passion, loves committing Civil Rights violations and doesn’t mind kicking a perp’s ass before the day is over. There’s a lot of intensity in Brolin’s performance, yet Bigfoot is so damn strange at the same time. He gets a kick out of performing fellatio on frozen bananas, makes guest appearances on Adam-12, and barks for more pancakes at a Japanese diner like it’s the most important thing he’ll eat all day. Maybe it was. I never got tired of seeing him on-screen. He can’t kick hippie ass or get respect from them, so what little respect he can get from a Japanese waiter, he will relish.
The rest of the cast is just as colorful and animated. Martin Short has one of the film’s more memorable sequences when he appears as a cocaine-loving dentist that loves taking advantage of his patients, Joanna Newsom brings Pynchon’s words to life as the film’s narrator and even starts becoming perplexed by the plot herself.
And like Sasha Grey, I never expected Michelle Sinclair, aka Belladonna, to cross over into mainstream acting. Granted, her character isn’t in the film that long and apparently she has more to do in the book, but I did like her brief appearance, even without recognizing her at first. Other big names: Maya Rudolph, Timothy Simons, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, even Reese Witherspoon right after Wild, all have tiny, funny moments that make me wish that we got to see more of them, but their characters are only parts of a larger story.
And Katherine Waterson is excellent in her role as Shasta. There’s such innocence about her, despite being mixed up in such a messy situation. Yes, there’s that scene that folks are talking about later on in the film, but I just enjoyed the chemistry between her and Joaquin Phoenix. Just from their first exchange and the flashbacks we see when they grew closer, it’s easy to see believe how these two characters had been together for so long, not just because Sortilège tells us so.
Inherent Vice is quite the oddball of a movie. The plot often gets lost in a purple haze of pot smoke. I wouldn’t say you need to turn your brain off to enjoy this movie or even that you need to be high. Maybe that would help the experience, though. The film is funny and has a lot of memorable characters. It’s just that hard to follow plot that keeps me from enjoying it more than I would like to.