As the wonderful Prince Charles Cinema in the heart of London's Leicester Square was beginning to fill up, a sense of excitement and dread was creeping through the crowd. The audience's wittering was quieter than usual, for this was no ordinary screening. It was a special preview of the highly anticipated Inherent Vice on a glorious 35mm print. Just before the projection was due to start, a man with a gorgeous beard was ushered into the room and addressed the audience. The man's name was Paul Thomas Anderson. The director had dropped in for a brief introduction to his latest work: "We made this film for cinemas like the Prince Charles; kinda old, kinda broken, but still groovy!" These words are equally adequate to describe Inherent Vice. Roll a joint (actually don't do that; drugs are bad for you) and get really ridiculously excited, because this film is something special.
If you are familiar with Anderson's nearly flawless filmography, you have come to expect the extraordinary from him and once again, he delivers. After There Will Be Blood, the director ventures down the path of adaptation for the second time and becomes the first filmmaker to bring a novel by the American writer Thomas Pynchon to the big screen. At this point I should probably admit to ignorance. I haven't read Inherent Vice (yet), nor do I know anything about the author's literary output. The following discussion therefore only concerns the film as a brilliant, hilarious piece of cinema.
The year is 1970, the place is the fictional Gordita Beach, California and the genre is neo-noir. This is the home of Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private investigator who goes about his business in a marijuana-filled haze. In a dreamlike opening scene, he receives an unexpected visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She warns him of a possible plot against herself and her boyfriend, a shady businessman named Wolfmann. Shortly thereafter, they both disappear and Doc is accused of murder.
The ensuing story is incredibly complex and we never quite know where we are at. As The Dude (Doc's cinematic brother from another mother) would put it: "This is a very complicated case. Lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what have yous and a lot of strands to keep in my head man." Characters drift in and out of the film without acknowledgement, die off screen or appear out of nowhere. There is little logic in Doc's investigation; he just has a tendency to turn up at the right spot at the right time. Making sense of it all is even more difficult due to the fact that we see this world through the protagonist's unreliable, pot-induced eyes.
Who cares about the plot anyway. All you need to is sit back, go with the flow and immerse yourself into this mad world. In reality, the film is about Joaquin Phoenix's hair, his hat and his round sunglasses. After he is told to "change your hair, change your life" in an early scene, his shoulder-length mane and his impressive sideburns look slightly different in nearly every scene. In 1970, he is a man out of time. After the Manson murders (referenced several times throughout the film), his hippie lifestyle is beginning to grow out of fashion and everyone looks down on him. That doesn't seem to bother him too much though. He'll just roll up another joint.
The name of another famous detective who had a considerable impact on film history springs to mind: Philip Marlowe. Raymond Chandler's creation was famously played by Humphrey Bogart in 1946's The Big Sleep and Elliott Gould in 1973's The Long Goodbye. In fact, Inherent Vice shares a considerable amount of DNA with the latter. Robert Altman's masterpiece updated the forties-set source novel to the seventies and depicted Marlowe as wisecracking detective who stumbles from one inconvenience into the next. Phoenix doesn't utter the famous catchphrase "It's okay with me," but he is in many ways the groovy to Gould's cool.
The closest thing to a second lead is Josh Brolin as the butch policeman Christian F. 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (the character names throughout the film are hilarious; personal favourite: a neo-nazi named Puck Beaverton). The wannabe actor reminded me of a cartoon dog that walked out of the TV set. He has more bark than bite, insulting everybody around him and boasting with the label "Renaissance detective" issued by the LA times. His interactions with Phoenix, who shows impeccable comedic timing, are the film's primary source of humour and there are plenty of laughs. Inherent Vice is Anderson's funniest since Punch-Drunk Love, pitching it somewhere between Coen-esque absurdity, slapstick and the variety of Doc's hairstyles.
The moment I knew the film was special comes about halfway through the film, when Anderson shows us a flashback to a blissful moment Doc's relationship with Shasta (off-screen since the opening). Neil Young's Journey through the Past provides the soundtrack to this sequence, which stands out because of its unabashed sentimentality. The scene has no direct impact on the plot, but it has a huge impact on the rest of the film and our understanding of the characters. The entire film is put into perspective in this brief moment. Here PTA's skills as a director (and a as a screenwriter) come to full effect. Music, image and performances come together and turn a moment that could easily have been cheesy or corny into a one of the best scenes in recent memory.
Inherent Vice has all the ingredients to become a future cult classic in the vein of The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. It's a hilarious, affectionate pastiche of the neo-noir genre which keeps you on the edge of the seat for two and a half hours. You will never look at baby pictures, chocolate-covered bananas or swastika tattoos in the same way. And I haven't even mentioned the fantastic photography, the trademark long takes and Jonny Greenwood's inventive score. I could point out that Owen Wilson, whom I quite like in general, doesn't really fit in and that I'm not sure about the sex scene towards the end, but that would be nitpicking. Inherent Vice is a groovy film and you have to go see it as soon as possible.