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Inherent Vice PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
14 02 2015

ImageDirected by Paul Thomas Anderson

All new PT Anderson films are an event. This one, adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, comes with health warnings of muddle, tedium, excess, self indulgence, with angry walkouts and snoring abandonment reported from critics and ‘civilian' audiences alike. It is indeed a car crash, but quite how much an intentional car crash is another matter. A confusing haze of weed and drink sits over the film, obscuring its goings on from our understanding - as it sat over the early 70s when the film is set, the place where the 60s crawled to die, and took a long and wearisome time about it. That's the warning, but you may be pleasantly surprised.

Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello (though what exactly he's ‘Doc' in we shall never know), a kind of private eye/counsellor in the mode of Philip Marlowe, not half so cool and tough and lovable as Bogart, more reminiscent of shambolic Elliott Gould in Altman's The Long Goodbye. We find him chilling out in the beachside shack where he lives (he also has consulting rooms, presided over by a receptionist who seems to have come out of the normal world), where he's revisited by long-gone old flame Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) with a tale of a big baddy called Wolfman, neo-Nazis, a saxophone player who's gone underground (who turns out to be Owen Wilson)and whose grieving wife wants him back, and probably other things I instantly forgot or failed to understand, despite an omniscient narration Chandler-style by someone called ‘Sortilege'. Thus a shaggy dog sets off to chase a wild goose across a severely stoned LA, through bars and refuges for recovering druggies, police cells and beaches, hippy kitchens and DA offices, swish penthouses and massage parlours, horrible interior design and cheesecloth shirts (I swear Doc was wearing a greeny striped number I once owned myself) and yoga and facial hair, a kind of pot pourri of one's imaginings of the worst excesses that messed-up West Coast America had to offer in those late-Vietnam, Charles Manson days, all seen through a smoky haze of that particularly stomach-turning 70s orange/brown palette.

Various other characters and plot lines come spinning in and bouncing off again, and Doc finds it as hard to get a grip as we do. He meets his perfect foil in ‘Bigfoot' Bjornson, played with zonked-out seriousness by Josh Brolin, the flattest flat-top hair and squarest jaw in the business, who prides himself on his press soubriquet of ‘Renaissance Detective'. His scenes with Phoenix are a joy to behold, as are the mad ten minutes of pure farce with sinister dentist Martin Short, a kind of Ronnie Corbett on acid, who may or may not be the head of the notorious ‘Golden Fang' corporation.

Quite soon I forgot about Wolfman and quite why he was being pursued, but it didn't matter. Nothing did, I just got my laughs and smiles where I could, which, considering the grim tales I'd hear about the film, were surprisingly frequent. Phoenix, scarcely off the screen, reveals a real physical comic flair and timing. Doc Sportello is a pleasant and sympathetic companion, and the fact that he understands only a little bit more than you do is consoling. And as in the Bogart The Big Sleep where thinking about what's actually happening too hard gets you worrying about who can have killed the chauffeur, it's better if you just go along for the ride and don't worry what's happened down the sidestreets of the story. But boy does have its longueurs. There are times when you feel like the teetotaller at the rowdy stag party, wondering why you're spending time with these tedious losers, wanting to get home to bed. But at my screening the audience mostly stuck with it - only one departed, about an hour in, when a female voice at the back declared ‘I can't stand this any more!', and the door to freedom swished open.

Inherent vice, it is explained at some point in the proceedings, is the legal term describing those things which carry within them their own tendency to damage or destruction - 'eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters' - and indeed celluloid film dies over time. If this film has a meaning beyond its sometimes exhilarating entertainment value, the melancholy atmosphere that also is in there implies it's giving us inherent vice as a natural human attribute, both as a general condition and very specifically in that time and place.

The odd thing is that the more I think about the film, the more I kind of like it, and even might want to see it again. If they spoke more clearly. And if it were about half an hour shorter. And if they showed it on proper celluloid film. And gave out free joints at the door.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 10 February 2015

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