This is the director's first adaptation (the novel was written by Thomas Pynchon in 2009), which concerns private investigator/cannabis hound Larry Sportello a.k.a Doc, as he attempts to unravel a plot involving lunatic asylums, white supremacists, sinister loan sharks and a supposed heroin vessel named The Golden Fang. What progresses is a murky route through 1970s California as the hippie culture nears it's groovy end.
Robert Downey Jr. was originally attracted to the lead role, but its obvious that Phoenix was a superior option in terms of fitting the character; just watch his unpredictability thrive in I'm Still Here - Tony Stark has no place in the doped up chasm of Inherent Vice. Trudging through neon sunlit California, Doc dresses in battered sandals and funky sunglasses, allowing his sea-brushed locks to solidify the hippie stereotype. Within the narrative, Doc's momentum leads him to the fist-faced Bigfoot Bjornsen, a hefty statue of justice portrayed by Josh Brolin who makes the protagonist's life with the police department somewhat challenging. This supporting character creates most of the comedy during the film, whether its by slurping slowly on chocolate bananas or being fiercely emasculated by his loving wife.
Pynchon designed the source material with a plethora of intriguing character names, and these are nicely transferred over to the screen; Sauncho Smilax, Sloane Wolfmann, Coy and Hope Harlingen, Puck Beaverton, Agents Flatweed and Borderline, Dr. Buddy Tubeside, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd and Japonica Fenway. What Anderson benefits from here, is an open and deranged set of actors who are all here to let themselves soak into the haze; check out Martin Short as the cocaine-ravenous Blatnoyd, one of the more memorable turns during the whole piece. Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, The Hunger Games' Jena Malone and Boardwalk Empire's Katherine Waterston round off this colourful carnival.
Mutton-chopped mischief is provided in handfuls, segmenting the odd and possibly unreliable discoveries of Doc, and throwing in a few moments of trippy peril; its not too silly to consider the main character's escapades as full-on hallucinations. Much of Anderson's film is sprayed across a foundation of nostalgia, littering the piece with authentic era tunes and textured, expressive cinematography.
Robert Elswit returns as Director of Photography for the American director, this time merging melancholy with a sense of paranoia, which differs from his past efforts on Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. As he leaps from his beached lily-pad home, Doc experiences the world through steamed eyes whilst the society around him bleeds by the sword of the Manson Family, reinforcing that all-important element of paranoia. Almost defensively, Anderson manages to reclaim this ghost world in a pleasingly non-conformist and tuneful manner, perhaps discarding some of the bleaker notes featured in the novel.
The plot itself regards the search for Shasta Fey (an ex-lover of Doc's) and her latest squeeze Mickey Wolfmann, who may or may not be in the clutches of The Golden Fang. However, that is the narrative in its simplest form, as Inherent Vice actually unfolds as a cinematic mirage; providing an inability to establish onscreen clarity throughout its duration. During one scene, Doc's T.V physically addresses him, an event that creates a rhythm of certain unreliability. This is an aspect some viewers may find off-putting, but for those who appreciate the work of Anderson, its best to just let it spill over you.
With moments of encroaching normality, slapstick comedy and poignancy, Inherent Vice stands confidently alone in a year filled with biographical dramas. Through sustaining a hallucinatory weight to the film, it could be said that Anderson's work clogs the air for thirty minutes too long and this is one of the only drawbacks. Just like its cult predecessors, this film successfully disrupts the cinematic norms and commercial expectations; it may not haul in sacks of gold but what it will do is maintain the active independent treadmill within film production.
See this week's screening times for Inherent Vice here