Noir is an atmosphere. It’s the hot, sticky air on a sizzling afternoon that wraps itself around your neck, tightening its grip with every breath. It’s when your curiosity grabs a shovel and you dig deeper and deeper into places you know you shouldn’t, emerging on the other side covered in dirt and knowing less than when you started. It’s becoming wrong-footed so many times that you become bloody and bruised from continually falling flat on your face. And, of course, there’s always a woman involved. And she’s always on your mind. Inherent Vice plays with all these traits but adds a little something of its own. That something is Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the best directors in the world, putting his own distinctive spin on the first screen adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. And boy, what a spin.
If Raymond Chandler had of been born a couple of decades later, had gotten coked up during the Swinging Sixties and bought a ticket for the Psychedelic Express, he may have penned something similar to Inherent Vice: a groovy, funny, hallucinatory movie were it’s not where you’re going that’s important, it’s all about the experience while on board. In other words, it’s all about the trip.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (brilliantly played by Joaquin Phoenix) is the kind of guy who was a regular passenger of the Psychedelic Express during the Sixties. But the train had to stop eventually. And as it pulled into the station for the final time he saw that the leaves had changed colour. The Summer of Love was over. The Seventies had arrived.
Doc is a Philip Marlow-type detective with a hippie sensibility and a strong taste for dope. He’s the kind of guy who’ll amicably give you the “peace sign” with his fingers one minute and then quickly twist his wrist around the next. His ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), appears before him like a femme-fatale at the start of the film. In a cool, desultory vain she asks him to investigate a case involving the elusive real-estate big shot, Micky Wolfman. And for the next two and a half hours, the audience is about to be bombarded with eccentric characters and crazy plot lines, making it feel like we’ve rolled a few joints with Doc and lit them up for the ride as we get lost in the druggy, seedy streets of LA.
Doc’s experiences are articulated by the sexy, cynical voiceover of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom)—taken almost verbatim from Pynchon’s prose—who appears to be Doc’s friend, his occasional dalliance, and even his conscience; all rolled into one big metaphorical joint. She narrates his thoughts and provides us with exposition—all in the typical (but never ordinary) noir-ish manner—with dialogue as sharp as Sinatra’s wardrobe.
Doc trips out and drops into a marijuana induced haze throughout the movie, going from one bizarre vignette to the next. He encounters sex workers, drug traffickers, money launderers, crazed dentists, Nazis, thugs, hippies and, of course, the Feds. He finds a society that’s become ridden with fear, distrust and paranoia in the aftermath of the Charles Manson murders. This picture Anderson paints of Los Angeles represents the conflict between the sordid remains of the post-Sixties Peace and Love Brigade and the corrupt and crooked establishment. This cultural clash is wonderfully (and tragically) embodied in Doc’s thorny relationship with “the old hippie-hating mad dog”, Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
Paul Thomas Anderson said he wanted to make a film that feels like a Neil Young song: a melancholy for the past and a sense of forlorn about the way things have gone; but still, underneath all the sorrow, there lies hope for the future. Inherent Vice is very funny at times but there’s always a sweet sadness beneath the gags; a longing for times-gone-by, a pining for yesteryear. Doc wants to be with Shasta again, Bigfoot despises the world in which he lives and Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) simply wants to be back with his family. This bitter-sweet sensation is the one that Inherent Vice ultimately leaves. In the end, the plot becomes irrelevant and instead one is preoccupied with the sad, beautiful aftertaste as the credits roll and the lights come up. That is why Inherent Vice is so delectable. That is why it’s so great. For Inherent Vice is like a plate of spaghetti: the plot may be as tangled as the pasta and the story as juicy as the meatballs, but, in the end, it’s not what’s on the plate that really matters; it’s the flavour. It’s the taste. And Inherent Vice tastes rather beautiful.