Film Review: Inherent Vice | “The Dude Goes to Chinatown”

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I promised it, and now I’m delivering. I saw Inherent Vice right before the Golden Globes, and boy did I need a movie like that on my mind before going into that awards show. I’m not saying that I needed to feel high in order to watch that ceremony, but I needed something like it to get me through the four hour special. I needed to remind myself that there are good movies out there, and that they might not necessarily get recognized at a mainstream award show. It’s a shame, but it means I get the chance to evaluate a film and think about what is worth recognizing it even if the Hollywood Foreign Press Association doesn’t.

Inherent Vice is adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello, a private eye living in the fictional Gordita Beach of Los Angeles in 1970.  His ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), comes to him with a case. She suspects her lover is going to be committed to a mental asylum by his wife and her lover, and she wants Doc to do something. However, Doc ends up getting tangled in a much larger conspiracy and runs into various characters across L.A, including a cop who hates hippies (Josh Brolin), a man on the run (Owen Wilson), and a drug addicted dentist (Martin Short).

The film is a stoner’s version of film noir. It’s a detective story, set in the dark underbelly of Los Angeles, except it’s far past the era noir is usually set in and everyone is on drugs. Yeah, there’s a lot of drug humor in this film. Weirdly, it’s not used for really cheap jokes and is played pretty realistically. The majority of characters in the film smoke (or in one case, eat) marijuana, and a few characters snort cocaine or shoot heroin. This is often used to show how addictive these people are and gives an idea that some of them might really be more hedonistic than they would admit.

It’s easy to see why these people would be so hedonistic. The film is set right at the start of the 1970s, and the era of peace, love, and understanding was over. The Manson murders are referenced quite a bit, so it’s clear that the hippie movement is losing steam. A lot of the hippie characters come off as really lost and confused. They turn to narcotics and other pleasurable activities, but there’s really no reason to. They’re not making a stand or challenging society, they’re just smoking pot because they want to smoke pot.

The straight society isn’t any better. Most of the characters who come from the “respectable” side of L.A. are shown to be just as hedonistic and lost as the hippies. Even though they use the word “hippie” like a racial slur, they are just as prone to reckless activity in search of a rush. We see a wealthy man’s home where it’s clear he and his wife both have lovers on the side. A dentist sleeps with his secretary and teenagers after they all snort tons of cocaine. The law enforcement is also shown to be pretty incompetent and corrupt. Doc gets attacked by cops randomly, often just because he’s walking past them. Brolin’s character is constantly angry, but we also see him drinking Johnnie Walker and eating sweet foods like frozen bananas and pancakes with fury. These characters are in just as much a desire to have some pleasure and excitement in their lives, with their only cover from being on the same league as people like Doc and Shasta being their money and positions.

It’s also fitting that most of the characters were turning to other ideological movements in this time. A Jewish character runs around with neo-Nazis because he thinks that they embody a strength and power that he wants to emulate with his real estate business. There’s several characters who ascribe to Buddhism and other Eastern religions and philosophies. This is particularly evident at the mental asylum that bears the motto “Straight is Hip” above its entrance, where everyone walks around in white robes chanting and meditating.

The film is very similar to other films by director Paul Thomas Anderson. A lot of his films, particularly Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master, deal with Americans who are attempting to find community and meaning in their lives. I feel Inherent Vice fits this because like the above films, it deals with people having to scramble when certain eras end, whether it be the height of the porn industry or the post WWII environment. Do I think Inherent Vice is as successful as those films? Yes and no.

I do think there are some real hazy moments in Inherent Vice, particularly towards the end of the film. There comes a point where the film has to resolve all the issues and try to have some sort of conclusion. There’s an ending to the major mystery, but it gets muddled in some fairly slow scenes. The film also relies a little heavily on its voice over by Joanna Newsom to explain the plot, something that does help deliver information and further the story, but also means that there’s a lot the viewer has to take in, causing it to be difficult to follow at times.

Regardless, I still think it’s a good movie. Phoenix and Brolin are particularly hilarious in this film, and they have some really good chemistry in their scenes together. It’s got some really funny moments and some really good period details that make it nice to look at, particularly with how they shot some colors. I don’t think it’s the best movie to come out last year, or the funniest, but it’s still a really good movie for P.T. Anderson’s filmography and probably one of the better Joaquin Phoenix performances. And who knows, maybe it’s really fun to smoke pot and watch it? I wouldn’t know, but feel free to try and let me know how it goes.

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