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29 January 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:16pm

From comedy to confusion, Inherent Vice shows the corruption of the hippie dream

Thomas Pynchon's novel makes for a wistfully funny film adaptation.

By Ryan Gilbey

Inherent Vice (15)
dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

Some films teach us how they want to be watched. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, the first screen adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, is in the business of being helpful. Not that it isn’t confusing; a polar bear in a snowstorm would be easier to follow. But that’s the plot. The mood and meaning are more accessible. When Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) pitches up in 1970 at the clapboard beachfront home of the part-time sleuth and full-time doper Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), she has a job for him. She is tangled up with the property magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who has been bulldozing the kooky, kinky Los Angeles neighbourhoods. The hippies are being kicked out and the straights are flooding in.

Now Mickey has vanished and Shasta Fay wants Doc to find him – a tall order for a man who looks as though he couldn’t locate his ankles without a trail of breadcrumbs. Reflecting on the sorry mess that she has brought to his door, Shasta Fay tells Doc: “It isn’t what you’re thinking.” His reply is the closest thing to a one-line primer for experiencing Inherent Vice. “Don’t worry,” he says soothingly. “Thinking comes later.”

Crackpot characters fly at Doc – and us – like balls from a Tennis Tutor machine. The cop “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) considers himself a “renaissance detective”. Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) is a saxophone player who might be a police plant. Mickey is a Jew who wants to be a Nazi. Even Doc isn’t a doc, despite keeping an office at the local surgery, where he is free to use the laughing gas or stirrups. His haywire hair keeps changing. Only the sideburns, like scribbled clouds in a child’s drawing, remain the same.

There’s a reflection of this confusion in the cast list, peppered with unspoken impersonations. Katherine Waterston is the spit of a young Holly Hunter. Reese Witherspoon, as a local attorney, has Tippi Hedren’s hairdo and hauteur. With his sawn-off head and blocky shoulders, Josh Brolin could pass for Boris Karloff. Martin Short, as a demented dentist, turns in his best Jerry Lewis, while Owen Wilson, as ever, plays Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.

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Phoenix is simply incomparable. He gives the most joyously cartoon-like performance since Jim Carrey in The Mask, only without the aid of CGI. (It helps to think of the movie as a live-action Looney Tunes: no wonder people keep asking, “What’s up, Doc?”) Comical twangs and high-pitched kazoos, the audio equivalent of his madcap expressions, can be heard from an off-screen television but they could just as plausibly be emanating from Doc’s brain. When the fried, skittish funk of “Vitamin C” by Can kicks in, there seems little doubt that the soundtrack is being broadcast from inside his head.

His wackiness is the equivalent of an interior monologue to which only the audience has access: when he tries to appear inconspicuous with a high-kneed, tiptoed creep along a hallway, it seems unlikely that this is happening in the same reality as the shoot-out in a stairwell or the sadomasochistic sexual encounter on a sofa. The promotion of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), a minor character in Pynchon’s novel, to a dreamy narrator commenting from some unspecified point in the future only increases the air of dislocation.

The movie’s subject is the corruption of the hippie dream and there is some of that sad surrender in the gradual warping of the comic into the serious. Robert Altman’s 1973 film The Long Goodbye, a potent influence, charted a similar path for its gumshoe hero, Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould). He greeted every situation with the same blithe catchphrase  – “It’s OK with me” – until he finally found something that wasn’t.

As a director, Anderson painted on the large canvas before he had the material to fill it: Boogie Nights and Magnolia now look drastically overambitious and it wasn’t until There Will Be Blood that he succeeded in matching form with content. His staging and his subtle but decisive shifts of tone are at their most skilful in Inherent Vice. Behind its Californian sunbeams, the film recalls the melancholic deadpan of Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson. Visual comedy is embedded in wide shots so that our eyes have to seek out the gags. Slow, single-take zooms during dialogue-heavy scenes give us the organic pleasure of feeling the chemistry between actors (Phoenix and Witherspoon, reunited from Walk the Line, are a particular delight) rather than having it manufactured in the editing suite.

It was overstating the case for Anderson to liken the picture to the zaniness of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker movies. Airplane! and The Naked Gun were laugh-a-minute, whereas Inherent Vice is more baffled-guffaw-every-now-and-then. But not knowing quite where the joke is doesn’t stop us from finding it funny, any more than confusion should preclude our wistful appreciation.