There’s a movie called The Big Sleep which was made in 1946 by Howard Hawks that is considered one of the cornerstones of film noir. It’s got some iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, some really snappy pulp dialogue, and atmosphere to die for. Also, the mystery at its center makes very little sense. It’s so convoluted that there are stories of the screenwriters sending telegrams to Raymond Chandler (who wrote the novel upon which the film was based) looking for clarification only to be told that Chandler himself didn’t really have a grasp on his own story either. Some thirty years later, Robert Altman decided to adapt another of Raymond Chandler novel featuring the same Phillip Marlow character into a film called The Long Goodbye. That film featured another story of Marlow in the middle of a complex crime scheme, but this time the setting is the 1970s and there’s a whole new tone to the whole thing. Fifteen years later the Coen Brothers get it in their heads to make a Raymond Chandler style mystery of their own, but instead of putting a hardboiled private investigator at the center of their convoluted kidnapping plot they put a stoned slacker called The Dude into the middle of it all and watch him stumble through the whole affair. That movie was of course The Big Lebowski and it’s become something of a cult favorite in the ensuing years.
It’s been over fifteen years since that film and it would seem that the acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has taken up this tradition rather than adapt another Raymond Chandler novel he’s instead decided to tackle a novel written by Thomas Pynchon, a writer who is if anything even more infamous for writing dense and complex literature that’s hard to get a handle on. Like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the film is set in Los Angeles in the early 70s. Out protagonist is “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is not unlike Phillip Marlow in his role as a licensed Private Investigator with clear street smarts but also not unlike The Dude in that he’s a habitually stoned counter-culture figure who sort of stumbles through a complex case largely because of ulterior motives. He’s brought into the film’s central case by his “ex- old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him about a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) whose wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) seems to be trying to commit to an insane asylum. Sportello agrees to look into this as a favor and soon finds himself in the middle of a case in which he’ll have to deal with crooks, neo-nazis, cultists, a crime syndicate called the Gold Fang, and a square police detective named Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who wants nothing more than to teach this hippie Private Eye a lesson.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, both felt like giant statement films. They certainly weren’t humorless films but they were clearly being made by someone who wasn’t messing around anymore and wanted to make major works that would draw people’s attention. Inherent Vice does share certain stylistic similarities to those two films but its subject matter is lighter in a number of ways. “Doc” Sportello is not a complicated enigma of a character the way that a Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell, and Lancaster Dodd were. You more or less get what he’s about pretty quickly and the movie is more about watching him react to the crazy situation that he finds himself in the midst of. That crazy situation certainly has elements of danger to it, but you’re never really too worried about Sportello. You get the impression that this is an unusually crazy and personal case for him in a number of ways, but you also get the impression that he’s seen some craziness like this before and that he’ll probably see craziness like this again and that he sort of thrives on chaos to some extent. In many ways the film is structured like a comedy but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “laugh out loud funny” even though there are a number of very witty moments and a generally comic aura to a number of the character interactions.
I’ve said that this movie is a bit convoluted, but that is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. The movie has a lot of small characters to keep track of and the conspiracy that Sportello is investigating seems ludicrously complicated. I do think I was more or less able to keep track of it but I’m not sure I was actually supposed to. I think Anderson’s intention was to make a movie that audiences would sort of give up trying to follow and just sort of cruise along with its druggy vibe. Taken at face value I don’t think this story really does amount to much. It’s a fairly episodic film when all is said and done and the movie never really sells the audience on the stakes involved in the case or does much of anything else to really make you care what the outcome is. I also wouldn’t say that the movie’s style is really special enough to carry the film all on its own. Anderson clearly knows how to make a film and he also does a pretty good job of adjusting his usual M.O. to fit this particular story, but he’s not doing anything overly wild with the camera here and in some ways he’s just letting things play out normally. I also can’t say that this works purely as a piece of entertainment either. The movie is certainly well paced, has some funny moments, and is most definitely not boring, but I can’t say it was a hilarious roller-coaster ride either.
I guess the film’s overall worthiness ultimately comes down to whether or not there’s something going on beneath the surface of this story, and that is not entirely clear to me at this time. The film is set in 1970 for a reason and seems to be very concerned with the culture war that’s going on during that period. Sportello and his police detective rival are clearly supposed to act as representatives of the counter-culture and the establishment and their various interactions are perhaps meant to act as a sort of metaphor for the wider conflicts that were coursing through the United States at the time. That’s interesting, but I can’t say that I was really able to pick up on exactly what the film was trying to communicate about this culture war and this only really takes up a certain percentage of the screen time. The film also seems to be largely centered around Sportello’s relationship with Shasta Fay Hepworth. The film starts and ends on this relationship and Hepworth seems to be in the middle of both a key twist and also has a lot to do with why the film is called “Inherent Vice.” And yet, Hepworth is missing for much of the film and I can’t say that I really got to know the character all that well in the limited screen time she has. That title (which refers to a point of insurance law that is said to apply to Hepworth at one point) does seem to be a key clue, but I still don’t really see what the film is trying to say with this relationship either.
I’m trying so hard to analyze this because I have trouble believing that Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon would have created something like this if there wasn’t some point to it all. If anyone has earned a benefit of a doubt it’s probably Anderson, but there are limits to how much credit I’m going to just give the guy on blind faith and on this viewing I’m not seeing any kind of masterpiece in Inherent Vice. That said, there is a lot about the film that makes it worth watching. There are a lot of fun performances in it from people like Josh Brolin, Martin Short, and newcomer Hong Chau which are definitely enjoyable and Anderson’s control of tone and the wit of the screenplay does make it pretty compulsively watchable. One could say that this alone should be hailed as a sort of triumph, nut that brings be back to where I started this review: to The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and The Big Lebowski. If those three films didn’t already exist I feel like I would have been more impressed with Inherent Vice, but with them in existence it kind of feels a bit redundant to me. I do have something of a nagging feeling that I’m missing something here and I’m definitely going to be giving it another chance at some point, but for the moment I can really only give it a rather modest level of praise.
*** out of Four