Film Review: “Inherent Vice” — Like an Acid Trip, Secondhand

Inherent Vice is a giddy, trippy potpourri that tries to make a virtue of never quite settling on what kind of story it wants to tell.

Inherent Vice, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. At Kendall Square Cinema and other screens around New England.

A scene from "Inherent Vice."

A scene from “Inherent Vice.”

By Matt Hanson

The phrase “inherent vice” can be used in several different ways. According to the society of American Archivists, an inherent vice is the tendency of material to deteriorate because of the essential instability of its components. Acidic paper can suffer from inherent vice, for example, as can nitrate film. In legal terms, inherent vice can be a justification for not insuring an item  to be shipped because its contents are potentially self-destructive, thus making mailing unacceptable risk. As the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly-anticipated new adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s popular 2009 novel, it’s also an unintentionally accurate description of the movie itself.

Inherent Vice is a giddy, trippy potpourri that tries to make a virtue of never quite settling on what kind of story it wants to tell. Anderson’s movie sets out to riff on a number of genre conventions: stoned noir revisionism, farcical ensemble comedy, ’60s countercultural spoof, and paranoid crime drama. The problem is that Inherent Vice’s pacing sags under the weight of so many unexplored narrative possibilities. The movie kicks off strong and for awhile keeps up its irreverent spirit, but well into the second hour the buzz begins to precipitously fade as the red herrings multiply. The movie’s narration is taken from Pynchon’s text and is delivered by cult musician Joanna Newsome, a choice that adds a wry, ironic twist on the movie’s numerous neon swirls.

The setting is in and around a fictional beach town called Gordita, which sits near a rather drab, bleary Los Angeles in the post-Manson early ’70s. In classic noir fashion, Joaquin Phoenix’s shaggy private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello is lounging in his dilapidated bachelor pad when an old flame comes by, the comely Shasta Fay Hepworth. She tells him about her new sugar daddy, a sleazy real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann whose greedy wife is scheming to abduct him, commit him to an insane asylum, and make off with his millions. Doc is a little skeptical, but he takes the case anyway. The fact that Wolfmann’s TV ads suddenly seem to address him personally (“What’s up, Doc?”) adds some hazy, crazy intrigue to the task, though Doc doesn’t know exactly what to make of it.

Doc receives a tip about Wolfmann’s proclivity for choosing white supremacist bodyguards and heads off to a strip mall the mogul owns, meeting the proprietor of an oddly designed brothel in the process. Before Doc can become too nosy, he is knocked unconscious from behind with a baseball bat. When he comes to, Doc discovers that Wolfmann and Shasta have gone missing, one of the bodyguards is dead, and the police, led by Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, scourge of dopers and dropouts everywhere, are hungry for answers. Josh Brolin is uncharacteristically funny as Bigfoot, all crewcut and scowl and John Wayne strut, the epitome of the square cop who habituates Japanese pancake houses “for the respect” and seems to have a little too much fun obsessively snacking on frozen chocolate popsicles.

Bigfoot wants to finger Doc for the disappearances, but is willing to recruit him as a police informant instead. After consulting with his mercenary lawyer friend Sauncho Smilax, played with manic eccentricity by Benicio Del Toro, Doc refuses to play ball. Doc takes on another case when he is approached by Hope Harlingen, a recovering heroin addict and ditsy single mother. This time it’s to locate Coy, her missing husband, who may or may not be a saxophonist in a surf rock band, a police informant, or a student radical, or all three at once. Owen Wilson plays Coy with convincingly befuddled confusion; it is as if the actor hadn’t gotten around to reading the script.

It doesn’t take long for the plot’s various stands to unfurl in all directions. Doc’s stoned peregrinations take him across the fringes of the countercultural landscape, from a commune in Topanga Canyon where the Last Supper is reenacted as an organic pizza feast to the offices of a coke-sniffing, Austin Powers-esque dentist played by Martin Short. A scene where a Ouija board is (unsuccessfully) consulted to locate a pot dispensary ends up supplying the story’s most romantic moment. Doc pays a visit to an insane asylum seemingly run by COINTELPRO agents where he discovers the closest thing to the truth about Wolfmann’s disappearance.

We meet a host of minor characters with even sillier names than the main characters, such as Rudy Blatnoyd, Crocker Fenway (and his daughter Japonica), Puck Beaverton, and Petunia Leeway. It wouldn’t be a Pynchon novel without a handy-dandy paranoid conspiracy: here we have The Golden Fang, a mysterious shipping network which is only whispered about until, after many double-crosses and convoluted plot twists, Doc finds himself caught in its omnipresent grip. Along the way a whole mess of joints, blunts, bongs, and dabs are cheerfully ingested by all and sundry.

Inherent Vice at times aims for a very Pynchon-like mixture of highbrow and lowbrow, comic and elegiac, erudite and utterly goofy. But there’s no serious attempt to balance the incongruous ingredients, so the eccentric cast and zig-zagging plotline careen off into chaos. Anderson must have gotten the notoriously reclusive author’s approval to write and direct the screen version of his novel, so presumably the screenplay comes with Pynchon’s  blessing. But he deserves better treatment. Anderson might redeem himself by adapting The Crying of Lot 49 next or, if he’s really feeling ambitious, turn the epic Gravity’s Rainbow into a miniseries.

Inherent Vice‘s overweening ambition undoes its impressive potential. If playing with classic noir conventions was all Anderson tried to do, this would be a much more coherent and interesting film. Placing an incongruous character type in a classic role, such as substituting the sarcastic slacker for the hardboiled stoic detective, has proven to be a very effective way to revitalize a genre, a la The Big Lebowski or Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye. But the cumulative effect of sitting through Inherent Vice is a little like listening to someone describe a recent acid trip. It’s not necessarily a bad time, and certainly amusing at points, but a peak experience is coming at you secondhand.

Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.


  1. Shelley on January 27, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    I admire Pynchon and was intrigued by this movie. Since it seems the point of the book’s plot is that all these weird and melancholy and not-paranoid-but-scary events are related, seems to me that point could be made by bringing up five or six of them, not fifty or sixty. That said, there’s a bewildered innocence in a protagonist who will suddenly do a right thing in the midst of all the disheartening confusion that is absolutely true to Pynchon and that shines out in this film.

  2. Junior on January 28, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Sharp trenchant criticism here. Hanson’s comment that the film “…tries to make a virtue of never quite settling on what kind of story it wants to tell…” goes right to the heart of why some works of art fail to deliver, when “overweening ambition undoes its [the film’s] impressive potential.” These insights give such focus to what can go wrong in both cinema and literature. At what point does the artist realize that the painting is finished?

    So watch out, Hollywood! Now and then you may encounter a critic who actually has read the books which have inspired many of these ambitious literary films and has understood them.

    Good job.

  3. Sketchbook on January 29, 2015 at 3:06 am

    Excellent review. Adroitly sums up a film that stranded mainstream critics.

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