“Inherent Vice” artfully captures mania, confusion of its time

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

It’s a simple story.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who is being coerced by her real estate mogul lover Mickey Wolfman’s (Eric Roberts) wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her “spiritual coach” to commit her husband to an insane asylum and get his money, and wants him to help her stop them. A member of a Black Panther-esque group comes to Doc to tell him that someone from the Aryan Brotherhood — who Wolfman, even though he is technically Jewish, is involved with — owes him money. Doc goes to investigate, and suddenly finds out that the real estate place where he thought he could find the guy who owes the money is actually a brothel (which is actually being used to launder money), and he is promptly knocked out cold before waking up next to a dead guy, an enormous line of LAPD officers and detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Oh, and Shasta and Mickey are now both missing. You follow?

Grand in scale, utterly complicated, artfully shot and wonderfully acted, writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, “Inherent Vice,” brings to life the utter madness, confusion and culture clashes of Southern California in the year 1970.

As the above paragraph indicates, the plot, while following a fairly linear progression, is extremely dense and filled with twists, turns and connections that make you wonder how they possibly came together in the first place. The gist of the film, however, is Doc’s quest to save Wolfman and Shasta from an apparent kidnapping by the secretive drug-smuggling group, the Golden Fang, along with the various side cases Doc is tasked with solving that all end up intertwining. Though Doc is the main character whose story we follow, and his characterization indeed does have some heart to it, the most important character in the film is truly the setting in 1970 Southern California, and its showcase of all the madcap mania set amidst the turbulent time.

No less, then, is the film’s almost literal air of mystery, as a constant haze accompanied by a burnt-out color scheme permeates nearly every scene. Almost no matter where we go in the film, the “dirty hippies” and their pot (along with other drugs) are there. Ergo, there is almost always some sort of smoke clouding our view. Even when it’s fairly clear there aren’t drugs, the camera oftentimes seems just ever so slightly out of focus, as if we have to really concentrate to understand what’s truly going on. The oranges, browns and yellows throughout the film — though now thought of as a retro Instagram filter — is really the look that many photos from that time period have. All of this ties together to add an even greater shroud of mystery to the case, as we are in a literal and figurative haze trying to figure everything out. Along with these added visual effects, the story is presented so we learn about things at the same time Doc does, and are therefore left in a constant state of thinking as the story marches ahead whether we fully understand it or not — just like it is for Doc.

Those used to Anderson’s signature long shots may initially be disappointed, but closer inspection reveals subtle but extremely nimble work by Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit, whose perfectly framed shots often slyly move in toward the characters by what looks like centimeters at a time. The effect is often not noticeable, until suddenly a conversation you were a couple feet away from ends up in the forefront of the screen, not allowing you to look away.

The acting, and especially the comedic timing from Phoenix, Brolin and everyone else in the film, also truly bring out the essence of the bewildered nature of the time for people of all types.

In bringing “Inherent Vice” to the silver screen, Anderson nearly effortlessly combines his and Pynchon’s styles to create a film that has heart underneath its unforgiving setting and character situations. Doc really just wants the best for everyone in the end, and doesn’t want anyone to be upset. In one scene, in which Bigfoot is having a bit of a meltdown, Doc asks, “Are you ok, brother?” Bigfoot responds, “Don’t call me that, I’m not your brother.”

“No,” Doc says. “But you sure could use a keeper.”

Rating: 4 stars

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