By Fred Blosser
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” drew almost uniformly positive A-list reviews on its limited theatrical release in December 2014 (to qualify for 2014 Academy Award nominations), and on its official nationwide release the following month. Not a surprise: Anderson has been a darling of critics since “Boogie Nights” (1997), and his script was based on a 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, an academically revered novelist. Box-office wasn’t so hot, though. The gross from the nationwide opening weekend was $381,000, and the total gross by the end of April only $11.1 million, just a little more than half the film’s reported budget. Observers theorized that the film was sunk by Pynchon’s perplexing, labyrinthine storyline about a pothead private eye in a Cinema Retro setting of 1970 Los Angeles. Well, maybe, but “Chinatown” (1974) was a commercial success with an equally twisty script, and Ross Macdonald, the dean of complex PI mysteries, sold well enough that he regularly made the New York Times bestseller list at the end of his career.
In fact, Ross Macdonald and “Chinatown” are two strands of the movie’s DNA, along with Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1939) and “The Long Goodbye” (1954), the classic movies by Howard Hawks (1946) and Robert Altman (1973) that were based on the two novels, Roger Simon’s counterculture PI Moses Wine in “The Big Fix” (1973), turned into a 1978 film with Richard Dreyfuss, and arguably, the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” (1998). Mystery fans may enjoy teasing out the influences. Mainstream viewers may feel like they’ve already been there, done that.
The private eye at the center of Pynchon’s story, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is visited at his beach shack by a former girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Shasta Fay’s sugar daddy, Mickey Wolfmann, a real estate mogul, has disappeared. Shasta Fay believes that he may have been put away against his will by his wife Sloane and Sloane’s boyfriend. She asks Doc to investigate. Doing so, the amiable, ambling PI encounters a series of high-rolling and low-life characters who seem to have little or nothing in common with each other. With a little digging, Doc begins to uncover one tenuous thread that seems to connect most of them, an association with something called “The Golden Fang.” The name may refer to a schooner used to ship dope from Southeast Asia, a criminal ring that uses the vessel, a fraternity of dentists, or a secluded sanitarium where Doc has a fleeting encounter with a spaced-out Mickey, or all of the above. With each character, the name carries a different connotation. When a cute Asian girl in a massage parlor reveals an important clue to Doc in a foggy alley, veteran mystery fans may wonder if Pynchon and Anderson are also channeling the venerable pulp trappings of Sax Rohmer and Fu Manchu.
Perhaps today’s moviegoers don’t read Chandler or Macdonald, or maybe attention spans have gotten shorter over the years. Like their predecessors, Pynchon and Anderson use a variety of tricks to keep viewers off-balance, principally the relentless introduction of new characters as suspects and red herrings, to the point that in one brief scene, Doc perplexedly writes all the names on a wall board and draws lines from one to the other to keep them straight. However, the ultimate unraveling of the mystery, when it arrives, seems pretty clear. For a real headscratcher, try Ross Macdonald’s “The Blue Hammer” (1976) some time.
The film’s actual shortcomings lie more with Anderson than Pynchon, including inconsistent tone, uneven casting, and a decision to use a tired dramatic device as the way to relate the story -- voiceover narration by one of Doc’s other pals, trippy astrologer Sortilege (Joanna Newsom). Some critics defended Anderson’s choice as the only way that the filmmaker could feasibly spoon out chunks of information that Pynchon conveyed in his novel through the running narrative. But it seems like an easy and lazy out of a challenge that might have been surmounted in a more dramatically satisfying way with a little more thought. At that, it still leaves unexplained some prominent details that were clear in the novel but hazy in the film. For example, who is “Aunt Reet,” the eccentric elderly woman from whom Doc mines some basic intel about Mickey Wolfmann? Played by an unrecognizable Jeannie Berlin, the character actually is Doc’s aunt, as the novel explains, but she’s a puzzling cypher in the movie as she comes and goes in one brief scene. Neither are Doc’s working quarters in a medical building explained. Is he actually a physician? You have to read the novel to find out why he operates out of a medical office. I suspect that these puzzling, unexplained details were actually the main source of frustration for paying audiences, and not the mystery plot itself.
Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as Doc, and Josh Brolin is amusing as his requisite cop nemesis, his performance hovering somewhere between the menacing persona of his character in “Gangster Squad” (2013) and his straight-faced send-up in “Men in Black III” (2013). In a bit perhaps inspired by “L.A. Confidential” (1997), Brolin’s character exploits the LAPD’s ties with Hollywood to land small roles in Jack Webb’s “Adam-12.” On TV, Doc watches a scene from the old show in which Brolin is digitally inserted in the background behind Martin Milner. The film’s best stunt-casting places Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s occasional playmate, Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball, and the two have the single best exchange of lines in the film:
Doc: “I need something from you. I need to look at somebody’s jacket.”
Penny: “That’s it? That’s no big deal. We do it all the time.”
Doc: “What? You break into officially sealed records all the time?”
Penny (casting a jaundiced glance): “Grow up.”
The Warner Home Video Blu-ray presents the movie in high-def, richly saturated color. The special features include three trailer-style clip compilations, each focused on a specific element of the movie (paranoia, Shasta Fay, and the Golden Fang). An alternate, unused ending is included in the fourth feature, “Everything in This Dream.” It hews a little closer to the final chapter of Pynchon’s novel than the rather pedestrian finale that Anderson decided to use instead, in which Doc and Shasta Fay sorta get back together. Nevertheless, although closer, it’s still not up to Pynchon’s lyric, evocative conclusion. The package also contains a DVD version and a digital copy.
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