by: Michael Shields
Across the Margin makes its case for the best film of the year with Inherent Vice…..
“Inherent Vice” refers to a term in maritime law1 where the quality of things (cargo, etc.) makes them difficult to insure in transit. For example, if you had a crate of long-stem wine glasses, a normal policy would not cover their breaking. Wine glasses, by their very unstable nature, break. In this light, it is easy to see the titular connection, as everyone who inhabits the world of Inherent Vice, whether the novel by Thomas Pynchon or the adapted screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson, is either broken, or bound to be. An unstable troupe awash with a unique brand of weird that takes moviegoers on one of the most mesmerizing cinematic rides of the year.
Piecing together the shattered pieces of Inherent Vice isn’t easy, but it was one of the more enjoyable times to be had in the theater this year. At its core, Inherent Vice is a sundry and spoofy take on hardboiled crime fiction. The protagonist of this twisted tale is an affable stoner named Doc Sportello, played splendidly by a mutton-chopped, disheveled Joaquin Phoenix (think Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon if he was a Lebowski-esque stoner). Doc is investigating the disappearance of a shady real estate mogul in Los Angeles, and much like Chinatown, another film that contributed to the great cinematic lineage of California noir, all the enigmas are hidden in plain sight. The plot is thick as mud, and the twists and turns along Doc’s accidental path of enlightenment are many, but it is these apparent dead-ends and stumblings into the clandestine alcoves of society where Inherent Vice dazzles.
It can be no easy feat adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel, the godfather of hippie conspiracy literature. But luckily this lofty challenge was met by one of Hollywood’s savants. A man, in Paul Thomas Anderson, who thinks far outside the box, and appears to understand the dynamic inner workings of the eccentric mind. As with most detective stories, the search for the missing person is only the glossy surface of the ocean, and what lies beneath is all the conspiracy, the excess, the greed and the lust. For the missing person is the mere spark whose fuse takes us on a journey of intriguing misadventures, and along this quest we come in contact with some of the most intriguing characters to ever adorn the silver screen. Like Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played unforgettably by Josh Brolin, a straight-laced cop and part time actor who has a distaste for all things hippie. Or Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S., a wild-eyed, coked-up, hedonistic dentist played by Martin Short. Or the many other idiosyncratic souls, such as Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), Dr. Buddy Tubeside (Martin Dew), Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), Ensenada Slim (Taylor Bonin), and Michael Z. Wolfman (Eric Roberts), whose names alone, and whose amorphous persona, highlight the untamed nature of our tale.
Roger Ebert once said, “every great film should seem new every time you see it.” Undoubtedly, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films fall deeply within this fold, as PTA’s creations not only benefit the viewer from a second viewing, they demand it. Multiple examinations are necessary to understand the extreme scope of his films, and to fully grasp the multifaceted layers of cinematic dynamism. Inherent Vice is no different. It is a film which snatches you up hurriedly, and holds you tightly within its tangled web, swirling you about a riotous plot whose bountiful puzzle pieces are, at times, arduous to piece together. But while heady, and aptly describable as a proverbial orgy of intemperance, Inherent Vice accommodates both the investigative viewer, who yearns to solve the case Doc is so consumed by (good luck!), and the one brave enough to let go and allow themselves to whimsically experience that final gasp of idealistic freedom of California in the 1970s.
Upon exiting the theater following my initial viewing of Inherent Vice, it was hard to describe the feeling I was overcome with. It was familiar. Very much so. Dizzying and surreal. Then it hit me. I felt, stoned. The hallucinatory fog of Pynchon’s novel, brought triumphantly to life by PTA, possessed me. And this feeling, and my affinity for the film, has only grown in consideration of the film’s transcendance and significance. It isn’t often cinema can invoke this sort of alleviating feeling of intoxication. But it isn’t often that we come across a film as masterful as Inherent Vice, and as fun.
- Which is a specialty of one of the characters in Inherent Vice, Sauncho Smilax, Esq played by Benicio del Toro. [↩]