Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix woozes out in Paul Thomas Anderson's pothead crime flick.


Inherent Vice
Warner Bros.

Inherent Vice might have been more fun if it had been played a little straighter. Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, set in the L.A. beach-town culture of 1970, is a stoned shaggy-dog story that's fat with pulp-fiction signifiers: snarling cops, neo-Nazi bikers, Indochinese drug smugglers, and, best of all, the Golden Fang—which could be either a mysterious red-sailed schooner, a shadowy international heroin cartel, or a syndicate of coked-up dentists. 

Pynchon didn't pretend that any of this added up to much, which was fine—we enjoyed his taffy-pull prose and his little hipster jokes. But writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't take Pynchon's story seriously either—a considerable misjudgment, I'd say. Pause for a moment to recall Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that parodied the conventions of pulp thrillers, but also functioned as one—it didn't let its parody take the place of its story. Anderson simply lays out Pynchon's giddy plot elements and invites us to join him in admiring them. He's unflaggingly faithful to the novel, but the result—in terms of narrative involvement and simple entertainment—isn't much of a movie. (Although at a run-time of two and a half hours, it's also too much of one.)

Pynchon's protagonist, a pothead private detective named Doc Sportello, is a character that was once eyed by Robert Downey Jr., who surely would have brought some energetic invention to the role. But Anderson ultimately cast Joaquin Phoenix in the part, and Phoenix, in overgrown muttonchops and ratty fatigue jackets, takes a mumbly, Method approach to the part, rolling joints and squinting in reefer-hazed incomprehension as the story sprawls out around him.

It begins with a late-night appearance in Doc's beach-side pad by hippie-chick siren Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), his ex-girlfriend. She has become entangled with a millionaire real-estate greed-head named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and is now on the run from Wolfmann's wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and Sloane's boyfriend, Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson), who want Shasta to assist them in committing Wolfmann to a mental institution. Shasta wonders if Doc's unlikely current squeeze, Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), might be of help. As with so much else, Doc's not sure about that. (His motto: "Thinking comes later.")

In his P.I. office, which he shares with a speed-dealing medico named Buddy Tubeside (Martin Dew), Doc is visited by ex-con Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), who's fresh out of stir and wondering what happened to his old gang turf, which is now being gentrified into something called Channel View Estates—a Mickey Wolfmann project, it turns out. Doc's inquiries take him to a hilariously garish massage parlor called Chick Planet (today's special: "Pussy Feast"), where he encounters a dead body and, soon after, his longtime nemesis, LAPD Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a hard-nosed blockhead dedicated to the violation of civil rights wherever he may find them. Doc shakes off Bjornsen with the help of attorney Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), then moves on to ponder the problems of Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), whose husband, surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), has suddenly gone dead, or maybe just missing. Before he knows it, Doc is snorting blow with a mad dentist named Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), huffing nitrous with one Clancy Charlock (porn star Belladonna), taking in Golden Fang tips from a squeaky masseuse named Jade (Hong Chau), and woozily contemplating a contract killer named Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie).

This is a lot of stuff, but it never coheres into much of a story. There's nothing at stake in the plot, and the characters are self-contained oddball units that don't really interrelate—they're just amusing kooks. Anderson's longtime cinematographer, Robert Elswit, provides some gorgeous golden-hour lighting, and there's an amiable, guitar-noodly score by Jonny Greenwood (bolstered with vintage tracks by Neil Young, Chuck Jackson and Supergrass). But as a riff on the film-noir detective genre, the movie seems wary of the pulp pleasures of the old crime flicks to which Pynchon alluded, and so it never delivers them. This is a mystery, of sorts, but possibly not one you'd want to pay to see—not in a theater, anyway.

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  1. I thought Owen Wilson committed suicide.

    1. I thought Owen Wilson committed suicide.

      It didn’t take.

      1. Cadillac commercials?

  2. I like Paul Thomas Anderson movies, but I hate Thomas Pynchon. So I’m torn on whether to see this.

    1. I love Pynchon so much I have several quotes tattooed on me. I hope this movie tanks hard.

      If some soccer mom ever recognizes one of my quotes and starts to yap about how much she loves Pynchon I’m going to track down PTA and kick him in the Seaman Bodines.

      1. Based on KL’s smart review, and your comment, I think I’ll go read it instead of see it.

        1. Against the Day is Pynchon’s most approachable (and IMO best) work. I always recommend that one to start with. Though IV is shorter, I guess, so there is that.

          1. Against the Day was the first Pynchon book I tried to read. I just couldn’t handle his style of prose.

            1. He’s certainly not for everyone!

      2. Soccer moms are not watching a 2.5 hour PTA movie.

    2. “This is a lot of stuff, but it never coheres into much of a story.”
      After reading that plot synopsis, I’d reword that as “This is a lot of stuff; THEREFORE it never coheres into much of a story.”

      1. It’s just another example of the mindless trash produced by Hollywood leftoids, a string of random events and tons of loser-glorifying drug use and nihilism with no plot. Having a plot is old-fashioned and “simplistic”, you see; enlightened beings create mindless trash and credit themselves for being (allegedly) above the realm of mere understanding.

        A horrid combination of nihilism and pretentiousness: that’s what passes for art these days.

  3. It sounds like an Elmore Leonard story, minus the plot.

  4. I enjoyed it, but I hadn’t read Pynchon’s novel beforehand. I definitely didn’t know what to think afterwards, and it does feel like a long 2.5 hours, but I wouldn’t say I was ever bored. Phoenix and Brolin are great together.

  5. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,
    go to tech tab for work detail ????????? http://www.jobsfish.com

  6. Some directors have so much ‘respect’ for a novelist that they absolutely destroy their work while trying to translate it into film.

    “Kafka” comes to mind. So does “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Everything written by Vonnegut (except Slaughterhouse 5 from the 1970s), etc

    I was sure Cormac McCarthy would be a victim until ‘No Country’; but that book was basically a shooting script- unlike everything else he’d ever written. The Road was a shitty book so I don’t really care how that turned out. Someone will one day try “Blood Meridian” and fail horribly. I think someone like Brad Pitt has optioned it already. “Hitchhiker’s Guide” has been painful in every iteration.

    Surprising successes = Naked Lunch; by completely ignoring the book. ‘Transliteration’? Cronenberg used the *style* and imagery from the book to tell a quasi biographical WSB myth. “Apocolypse Now” is a better ‘Heart of Darkness’ than the one they did with Malkovitch. 2001 also did it better.

    IMO, the best books for translation to film tend to NOT be “high literature”, and operate in a middle-range of ‘entertaining literature’ which reads fast, colorful, and doesn’t rely on a lot of ‘between the lines’ inference. Like Everything By Steven King. Or maybe schlocky romantic novels = the English Patient was actually pretty good. With the ‘more literary stuff’ it seems like the director kills it with kindness and fear of changing it.

    1. Gone Girl
      Gone With the Wind
      The Hunger Games

      Schlock literature is the most cinematic.

  7. Someone will one day try “Blood Meridian” and fail horribly. I think someone like Brad Pitt has optioned it already.

    IMO, no one other than the Coen Bros. or the risen corpse of Peckinpah should be touching that one.

    Although I’d be intrigued to see what Jodorowsky would do with it.

    1. James Franco had a piece up last year about being involved in an early test of Blood Meridian in 2010…but zero actual info on where its progressed since then

      …apparently Scott Rudin owns the rights now; but IMDB pro has no info on whether its actually scheduled for production or what.

      Franco, FWIW tried his hand at directing ‘As I lay Dying’

      …and its supposed to suck balls.

      He took that as a cue to try something harder, and he just did “Sound and the Fury”. With Seth Rogan. It will be like, ‘The Interview‘, only more avante-garde!

      All of which is to my point – literature tends to attract ‘fan-directors’ who aren’t up to the task of ripping the material apart and putting it back together for cinema purposes. They invariably tend to be disasters

  8. $89 an hour! Seriously I don’t know why more people haven’t tried this, I work two shifts, 2 hours in the day and 2 in the evening?And i get surly a chek of $1260……0 whats awesome is Im working from home so I get more time with my kids.
    Here is what i did
    ?????? http://www.paygazette.com

  9. I had to assume that this would only be interesting to someone raised in 70’s California. Being raised on the other coast I found almost nothing of interest in the entire movie which seemed to be oversold insider character stereotype jokes with little point to the overall ‘plot’.

    Or perhaps I give it too much credit and even Californians will find it as boring as I did.

  10. hmmph. paul anderson doesnt so much make movies as try to convince his audience that he watches them.

  11. Pynchon ‘s 2009 novel, set in the L.A. :beach-town culture of 1970, is a stoned shaggy-dog story that’s fat with pulp-fiction signifiers snarling cops, neo-Nazi bikers, Indochinese drug smugglers, and, best of all, the Golden Fang

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