AT face value, a film about a California private eye, and a tale of out-of -work London actors on holiday in the Lake District wouldn’t have much in common. But I can’t help feeling that Inherent Vice and Withnail & I are sibling comic masterpieces, fuelled by intoxication and touched by regret for the end of an era.
The hero of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film is perpetually stoned, though somehow holding it together to solve his multiple cases and make a defiant last stand for the California Dream; the dissolute thespians of Bruce Robinson’s 1987 classic imbibe the most famous of cinematic joints, “The Camberwell Carrot”, not to mention litres of booze, as they unknowingly see out the Swinging Sixties with one last binge.
And just as Withnail spawned the drinking game, with viewers challenged to keep up with the characters’ intake, glass for glass, so I can imagine DVD evenings with Vice, viewed through the narcotic haze experienced by the film’s hero, Doc Sportello. But that’s another matter.
Adapting Thomas Pynchon’s celebrated “surf noir”, Anderson takes on the novel’s richness and strangeness, its narrative sprawl and array of colourful characters connected by love and crime. At its centre is Doc (Joaquin Pheonix), a straw-hatted, mutton-chopped hippy gumshoe who lives in an apartment on the beach and incongruously runs his business from a doctor’s surgery (the only evident reason for his name). In true PI mode, he doesn’t so much take cases as become lured by dodgy clients into a deep well of trouble.
It’s 1970, on Pynchon’s fictional Gordita Beach. One evening Doc is broken from his reverie on the sofa by the appearance of old flame Shasta Fey Hepworth (newcomer Katherine Waterston). The pair haven’t seen each other for years, since she apparently broke his heart. Now in love with notorious property magnate Mickey Wolfmann, she’s being drawn into a plot against him. Shasta’s caught in the middle, out of her depth, in need of Doc’s help.
The next day both she and Mickey have disappeared. As Doc tries to find them he becomes embroiled in more cases, including the murder of Mickey’s bodyguard and another missing person. He encounters neo-Nazis, FBI agents and undercover snitches, and hears of the Golden Fang, which may be the ghostly schooner off the coast, thought to be the carrier for a drug cartel, or a tax dodge by a group of sex-crazed dentists. He’s hounded throughout by LAPD’s most notorious civil-rights offender, with delusions of being a “renaissance detective”, Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). And he finds an unlikely ally in Jade, from an establishment with the self-explanatory title, “Pussy Shack”.
After his granite-jawed, frighteningly intense loner in Anderson’s The Master, the brilliant Phoenix embodies a character at the other end of the emotional spectrum, relaxing all those facial muscles, his beatific Doc existing a few notches away from full consciousness, yet still able to produce moments of cognisance and private eye guile. Would he be a better detective if he wasn’t so high? One suspects not. And the fact that he has a moral compass despite not always knowing where he is, is rather sweet.
Phoenix is surrounded by ripe character turns, each having a field day with the delicious dialogue, among them Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, complete with buzz cut and chip on his shoulder, who alternates weirdly between being Doc’s nemesis and his informal partner, Owen Wilson as a sax player turned reluctant snitch, Reese Witherspoon as a prim DA by day, Doc’s joint-smoking lover by night, and Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s lawyer buddy, with the inside track on the Golden Fang. Singer Joanna Newsom is Sortilège, a mystic and the film’s occasional narrator, whose fond, philosophical account of Doc’s shenanigans adds to the film’s intoxicating atmosphere.
Given the dreamy, 35mm compositions by Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood), the beach-bliss period soundtrack, the meandering, often incoherent plot, and that Phoenix is in every frame, it’s almost inevitable that watching the film is to sink into something akin to Doc’s mellow state.
That said, Doc is also paranoid, and it isn’t just the drugs talking. In 1970 Nixon is in the White House and Reagan is governor of California; there’s a lot to be paranoid about. As enjoyable as it is, there’s an edge to the film that’s provided by the tension between the Sixties and the Seventies, the counter culture and the rabid conservatism that is reasserting itself.
Anderson’s whole career has been rooted in California, with Boogie Nights, Magnolia There Will Be Blood, The Master collectively offering a leftfield history of the director’s home state. With Inherent Vice he adds to a fine tradition of LA crime films, including Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep and another great stoner crime comedy, The Big Lebowski. Incidentally, all these films have plots that threaten to slip through your fingers; the plot really isn’t the point.
If Inherent Vice marks the end of an era, it also suggests that none of us should give up the ghost. As one character advises Doc, “You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up on the freeway again.”