Inherent Vice: A Review

“Just to be social.” Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello utters this profound proverb as he dives face first across a mahogany table towards a sand-pit of cocaine. Reluctantly restraining himself throughout his interview with the indecent Dr Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), Sportello, cannot resist any longer. Perhaps his cognitive behaviour is that of the junkie, or a microcosm, representative of the ills of pandering to society’s social etiquette. The act of being social is merely the interchange of common bad habits, the acceptable method of morally redeeming the unacceptable. Like a grandson feeding pigeons, an uncle downing a lager or a junkie scoring a hit. These acts are fine as long as the sins are committed in the company of others: down the park, pub or pontoon with people. A complicit, communality of degradation. A mask to the immoral: being social. Evils exonerated.

In this ‘social’ scene, Phoenix’s character, a disreputably drugged private detective, is at a suspected cartel headquarters, Golden Fang, that turns out to be a dentist syndicate piggy-backing off the heroin dependent, calcium deficient LA addicts. If it sounds all over the place that’s because it is. This represents just one strand of a Thomas Pynchon plot that Lebowski Director Thomas Paul Anderson has rewritten and reworked for the big screen. Put the pair together and you are in for one hell of a ride. Or should that be a two and a half hour trip…

Tripping balls. The balls of the film come in the form of Messrs JP and JB. (Not JLS!) While Joaquin Phoenix plays the happy hippy, bohemian detective, complete with American hustle afro and sculpted sideburns. Josh Brolin is the iron cast opposite. As Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Brolin is hard as granite to compensate for his stoner companion. The two form an unofficial partnership in their often coinciding manhunts: ‘Doc’ for his girlfriend, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) and ‘Bigfoot’ for fugitive real-estate entrepreneur, Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The pair really cut their comedic teeth in a sensational pairing that successfully binds the pages of an otherwise often incomprehensibly tangential Pynchon plot.

Highlights include the base slapstick of watching the innocent Sportello being shoulder barged and knocked to the ground by police officers every time he is called to the station. Each occasion reinforces Pynchon and the film’s attitude to authority. From the surprise first collision, to the attempted avoidance, snaking between police phalanxes, before Sportello finally adopts the anti-rape position and allows the officers to walk right on over his prone, crouching self. Authority is an inhibitor, there for fear and threat, acting violently and at random, without cause or concern; a corrupt vehicle to quite literally squash the real hero of the film. This is before Phoenix’s protagonist private eye can even reach the heady heights of Bigfoot Brolin’s sun-striped, City of Angels office.

From the outset the comedic chemistry of the pair is palpable. Whether over the office table, telephone or pancakes, they rebound with the humour of their physical contrasts: think Ice Age’s Manny and Sid or for another Manny, see Black Books’ Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey for the simple comedy of opposites; The Two Ronnies made one national treasure through the art of opposites. This is coupled with the flippant, fanciful delight of a far-fetched dialogue that snaps tight to combine the slapstick with the intellectual. It is far more at the chemically over-stimulated rather than downer end of the intoxication spectrum. Musically, it is more the 1970 equivalent of Django Django than the War on Drugs. For a stoner movie, Inherent Vice requires a real grappling with the narrative and dialogue to unlock Anderson’s treasure trove of comedic delights.

The final scene featuring JP and JB is the most memorable. After putting that macho moniker ‘bigfoot’ to full use and kicking Doc’s door down, Brolin, besuited yet strangely downtrodden detective seats himself opposite the happily high and smoking Phoenix. As Hollywood hearts to hearts go, this takes some beating. After a contemplative reflection on the past, things quickly disintegrate. Let’s just say that by the end of the scene, Doc is not the only marijuana muncher as he loses his entire stash to Bigfoot’s masticating jaws, dripping green leaves and not of the tea variety. As reconciliatory scenes go it is suitably Pynchon and Anderson’s leads realise the full force of farce perfectly.

Strangely, it is hard to criticise a film that has seen up to fifty percent walk outs at certain screenings (Gloucester Quays at 11AM on a Thursday saw one of the three man audience leave halfway through, Maths indicates this to be in the region of a 33% walkout stat). The admixture of an attractive cast, (namedrop Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson amongst the support cast), an internationally recognised director, Anderson, and an adaptation of a famous, popular novelist, Pynchon, means Inherent Vice looks set to become an immortal amongst the pantheon of cult classics; critically acclaimed at the time, but rejected by vast swathes of society. Give it twenty years and the postmodern onesie wearing indies will surely love a taste of sweet LA Vice.

And there we have it, back to society. Nothing less social than leaving a cinema early. Just be social. Stay in your seat and don’t take Coke.

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