Saturday, January 17, 2015

Inherent Vice

Marijuana Jones and the Curse of the Golden Fang
"What's Up, Doc?" 

I've never smoked dope. Never been tempted and probably never will be (despite living in one of the—first—two states to legalize its recreational use). When asked why (usually by someone who has and is saying more about themselves than actually caring about the reason) my standard answer is: "The world doesn't need me any more paranoid."

It's a nice laugh line, but it's also true—the world doesn't necessarily need me any more paranoid, but I certainly don't need myself to be. I'm paranoid enough as it is.*

Which brings us to the central conceit of Inherent Vice—a film noir about a stoner detective.**  The thing about film noir (the term—meaning "black film"—coined by French film critics for the pulpy paranoid ambiguously moral post-war films that had a cynical edge to them) is that they're set in a Universe—ours, unfortunately—where unseen forces are in control of things to the detriment of the people too busy with their ordinary lives to notice something wrong.  The best description I've read of film noir is it depicts a world where "the streets are dark with something more than night."***
Precisely. There are things more black than night...especially when it comes to the motivations and the souls of men, the stuff of those "detective" stories with long shadows running through them that hide evil from detection and provide a cloak for those wanting to remain anonymous and invisible.

So, we have a stoner detective, already a little paranoid in how the world works under the influence, operating in the film noir world promoting paranoia on the not-so-grand scale. Seems a natural. ****  And Thomas Pynchon used it for "...Vice," his most accessible novel to date. Paul Thomas Anderson has made a film of it.
I'm not the biggest fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. He's a critical darling (like Quentin Tarantino, but at least P.T. isn't such a snorter of other people's material) which makes me suspicious of him. I rarely find him consistently entertaining, but his films are always interesting...well, filled with interesting ideas, bridged by some meandering sections and extended diversions that test the patience of the viewer. He is, however, never afraid to take on a challenge, even if the reach exceeds his grasp, which is always worth supporting. The works of Thomas Pynchon have never been filmed before...because they are nothing if not a challenge...and his novel of "Inherent Vice" is as close to being movie material as he has come.
It tells the story of LA P.I. Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who is tasked by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) with the finding of her current lover Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who has gone missing. Shasta suspects foul play—not hard to figure out since Wolfmann's wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her current lover have asked for her cooperation with the enticement of reward, and she's laying low—staying untraceable, just in case.
Doc is not exactly a high roller (although he could easily fit one of those terms separately), having his office in an L.A. free-clinic. Almost immediately, clues start coming in about Wolfmann and his disappearance, and Doc find life getting complicated. His first recce/sortie is to a future Wolfmann development site, which is currently the site for a double-wide "massage parlor" where Doc is knocked unconscious and awakens next to the dead body of Wolfmann's body-guard (or we should say former bodyguard), surrounded by squad cars and the loaded guns of their occupants, led by the humorless presence of Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who, along with being a part-time actor, has a checkered history with Doc.
Doc is questioned as a key-witness to the murder, before his lawyer Sauncho Silax, Esq (Benicio Del Toro) shows up to advise (despite specializing in maritime law) and spring him. Doc drifts from person of interest to person of interest—a crack Mom (Jena Malone), her "disappeared" husband (played by Owen Wilson, so obviously he's not disappeared), former clients, white supremacist groups, black activists, a drug cartel called "The Golden Fang," and a society of dentists. Clearly, there's safety in numbers and it's tough out there for a lone wolf like Doc. With all the covert operations and secret societies, professional or otherwise, it only lends to the paranoia associated with the noir world, obscured in shadow and fog, but also by Doc's personal purple haze.
Another aspect of the noir that Pynchon has hit on is the unresolved loose threads of post-war versions. Ever since Chandler and Howard Hawks' presentation of The Big Sleep***** has been the apparent lack of attention to details. Mystery aficionados and fans of Dame Agatha do not appreciate the victims who fall through the cracks, and it can be frustrating for regular audiences, too ("Wait a minute...what happened to....?"). Few questions are answered in Inherent Vice to a consistent degree. This may mar any entertainment value for the casual viewer—you'll also find the tone of the thing different from the comedy tone of the trailer; it's more of a peculiarity than a comedy.
These guys should do a movie together...maybe with music.
Still, I took pleasure in the final shot where Doc is driving through the night, the headlights of the cars behind him illuminating the suspicious squint in his eyes—as fine a visual representation of the mood of noir as I've seen.
Inherent Vice is also the first movie that genuinely gave me the munchies.

* The oldest joke I remember on the subject is "It's a wonder I'm NOT paranoid, what with the whole world against me and everything..."

** Nope.  Don't bring up comparisons to The Big Lebowski, even though its plot resembles that of the Dean of detective novels, Raymond Chandler. Jeff Bridges' "Dude" is not a detective, so much as a righteous man seeking revenge.

*** Raymond Chandler, again, from 1950's "The Simple Art of Murder."

**** I've always wanted to see a production of "Harvey" updated so that Dowd, "Elwood P," doesn't see puca's because of booze, but because of hallucinogens.  I've always imagined Jack Nicholson as Dowd.

***** There is the story where Humphrey Bogart asked Hawks who killed the chauffeur and Hawks couldn't tell him, nor could the screenwriters.  They wired Chandler who claimed it was one character and Hawks remembered that character was someplace else.  "I don't know," said Chandler.

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