“Inherent Vice” gives its viewers a contact high

by Andrew Kingsley | 1/11/15 7:04pm

If you got Sherlock Holmes off of opium and onto grass, threw him into the 1970s and ramped up his libido, you would approximately end up with Larry “Doc” Sportello, the bumbling, high-as-a-kite detective and protagonist in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “Inherent Vice” (2014). The idea of a Thomas Pynchon novel being adapted into a Paul Thomas Anderson film might sound like a recipe for an abstruse mess — Pynchon’s novels have often been deemed “unfilmable” — but somehow they gel, finding a middle ground where incomprehension is made up for by zeitgeist and farce.

Anderson brings Joaquin Phoenix back from their previous project together, “The Master,” (2012) into the dazed, hippie epicenter of 1970s California, where astrology is religion and everyone is some combination of high, horny or buttoned-down conservative. When land magnate Michael Wolfmann and Doc’s former girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth both go missing, Doc jumps on the case, leading him down a tortuous rabbit hole of bizarre characters, all of whom revolve around a multinational drug cartel, a mysterious boat and a dental organization, all which are named The Golden Fang.

Like something out of a Wes Anderson or Woody Allen film, there are so many highly stylized and explosive characters who supply each cut or entrance with comic possibility. To rifle off some ensemble highlights, there is Josh Brolin as the homoerotic, emasculated Los Angeles Police officer who sucks on chocolate covered bananas and demands “Multo panacako!” Martin Short as the pedophilic dentist with The Joker’s smile, Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s marine lawyer representative, Maya Rudolph, Anderson’s real life partner, as Doc’s sweet nurse and Jena Malone as the drug advising single mom who teaches kids how to use drugs “responsibly.” In this swirling, surrealist universe, only the absurd can exist.

The film’s inexplicability nearly goes unnoticed due to its trippy, dreamlike quality — plot points are often unresolved or unmotivated, but does that really matter in dreams? Leave your classically-trained Hollywood brain at the door, because its need for resolution and clarity will not necessarily be met. The film itself could be seen as Anderson’s nostalgic dream of his father, who was the host of a late night television horror movie anthology and encouraged his son’s film career .

Form matches content — a film about a perpetually pot-smoking detective should translate the goofiness and confusing essence of being high. So it’s ironic that in an interview with the Boston Globe Anderson claimed “I also remember feeling that if your characters are stoned, your camera should be sober.” While Anderson’s classic, saturated and real film stock look remains, the camera fails to make sense of much that’s going on. It even seems to deliberately obscure details, but, like Doc himself, you don’t seem to care too much. You just blithely face what’s in front of you. Film reviewer Tony Macklin said, “you should bring brownies, instead of popcorn, to Inherent Vice.” Well, I ate popcorn, and I still felt high watching it.

Because of this contact high, I found myself laughing at all the absurdities, from the fact that Doc’s partner can’t drive to a scene of Brolin eating a platter of weed, from a drug swap carried out by “sweet” children to Doc’s mini detective notebook that contains the emptiest, most confused information that even Inspector Clouseau — otherwise known as the Pink Panther — would have scoffed at. A hiatus from the grim, monomaniacal nihilism of his previous films — including “The Master,” and “There Will Be Blood” (2007) — Anderson returns to the levity and irreverence of his earlier “Punch Drunk Love” (2002) while preserving his current cryptic narrative style.

The film’s title comes from the carrier industry, where the “inherent vice” of an object is a hidden defect natural to the transported product, like that chocolate melts or glass shatters. If the film had an inherent vice, I’d say it tries too hard to be obscure and plays more as an experimental cinema rather than a standard film. While the 155-minute experiment in adapting Pynchon drags on at times, it discovers Anderson’s funny bone, and brings us the glorious world of sex and drugs in his beautiful film.

Rating: 9/10

“Inherent Vice” is playing at The Nugget at 3:50 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.