Harsh Texture

Inherent Vice

A stoned detective's ex girlfriend sends him through a web of murder and illicit land deals in 1970s LA

Vintage private eye films were always wild stretches of logic. The PI connecting suspicious characters to dastardly deeds in the most convoluted fashion permitted by a 90 minute runtime. And they’d be right! Working off little more than intuition and first impressions they were able to deduce sordid histories and motives. They could keep track of who was sleeping with whom, and even the murderers of the minor characters.

The true neo noirs starting in the late sixties threw out this tenet while showing a reverence for the other basics of the genre: the femme fatales, the money corrupting all the characters, the meathead (or bigfooted in this case) police officers waiting for the opportunity to slug the hero, the naif trapped in a dangerous world.

In Inherent Vice there’s little time for the detective, Doc (Joaqin Phoenix), to deduce anything. After a woozy visit from his ex girlfriend, Shasta, sets him on the task of saving eccentric Mikey Wolfman from the lunatic asylum, Doc finds the plot thrown at him, point by point. The next day, another man tangentially connected with Wolfman is petitioning Doc to help find a missing member of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Doc’s reaction to the tangling webs of plot is to check out. In 1970 LA the weed was certainly appreciated if not abundant. Doc may be its most enthusiastic fan, so in love with marijuana that he forgoes heroin altogether (though he wouldn’t turn down a snifter of cocaine or nitrous if available).

Inherent Vice hits all the recognizable antagonists of the post-Woodstock underground culture. There’s an appearance from Richard Nixon; narcs; empty patriotism; the ultra square TV cops. Viewed from 45 years later when mainstream attitudes toward drug use are closer to explicit acceptance, there’s an air of victory. As Hunter S. Thompson prophesied at the time, in the early 70’s everyone, the squares and the hippies, are druggies of equal appetites.

Inherent Vice revels in its early 1970s setting, using period-correct dress and attitude. The aesthetic extends to the audio, which is also period correct, pre-THX  and pre-surround sound. This is a poor decision on the production’s part. Joaquin Phoenix is entrusted with much of the dialog which he dispatches in mumbles and slurs. It gets lost in the murk, but maybe this is what Director Paul Thomas Anderson intended.  The plot of Inherent Vice is so complex, so convoluted that an acceptable strategy for enjoying the movie may be to give up trying to understand it. Although the pieces that do spill through, like Wolfman’s aggressive redevelopments that turn vast tracks of ghettos into luxury apartments, hew close enough to reality that Inherent Vice could slot into the sub genre of neo noirs that map out the history of Los Angeles. Among them Chinatown, The Two Jakes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and L.A. Confidential.

Yet for all this, Vice is a movie of the present moment. The long takes built around sight gags were clearly built in the age of the Youtube share and tumblr gif.

Published: Sept. 9, 2017, 3:44 p.m.
Updated: Sept. 9, 2017, 3:44 p.m.