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Los Angeles As A Hazy, Dying Dream In Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Inherent Vice'
Piercing through the smoky haze of Inherent Vice is a sense of irreversible loss. It's 1970, and the Summer of Love has passed, the Hells Angels killed that guy at Altamont, and Charles Manson and his Family's Helter Skelter reign of terror on the Southland have put a full-stop on the Sixties' California Dreamin'. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) still has plenty of weed left over, but the rest of Los Angeles is ready to move on. Doc makes a decent-enough living as a private investigator to to have his own cozy seaside bungalow in Gordita Beach (a fictionalized Manhattan Beach, where Thomas Pynchon briefly lived), but to all the normals he's just a burned-out hippie.Inherent Vice marks the first onscreen adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, an author long considered "unadaptable" for the overbearing complexity of his stories. In Paul Thomas Anderson, Pynchon may have found the perfect match to not just deftly juggle the sheer volume of plot like he did in his earlier work in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but also capture the essence of Los Angeles. Viewers may find the sunny vibes and zany twists of Inherent Vice a welcome return to that younger filmmaker, before the overbearing heaviness of There Will Be Blood and The Master. The joint gets rolling when Doc's ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (a enigmatic and beautiful Katherine Waterston), shows up at this bungalow one surreptitious evening looking for help: there's a plot to ship her bigwig land developer boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) off to a looney bin to steal his money. Far out.
Naturally, any good L.A. noir has a wealthy developer as the catalyst of its plot. Doc's investigation takes him through a Los Angeles in transition towards an unsettling new normal. A Black Panther (Michael K. Williams) calls on Doc for some skiptracing on one of Wolfmann's white supremacist bodyguards, leading him to a housing development still in an embryonic stage. The formerly black neighborhood that once stood there has been bulldozed to make way for the antiseptic tract housing of Wolfmann's own "Channel Vista Estates." It is one of Inherent Vice's most heartbreaking moments. The unrest and roots of the Watts Riots haven't been addressed by the city; simply paved over. In another job that falls into his lap, he is tasked with finding the ex-junkie musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) and deeper into a rabbit hole of COINTELPRO, phony cults, and a sinister drug cartel run by dentists Doc falls into. Coy hasn't lapsed and turned back on, tuned back in, and dropped back out, but instead is a snitch for the suits. It makes the pay, man.
"American life was something to be escaped from," intones Sortilège (pixie-voiced Joanna Newsom), Doc's is-she-real-or-not companion and the film's narrator. LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (a hilarious Josh Brolin sporting the squarest head imaginable), serves as the film's figurehead for the muscle of this straight world (he has "a twinkle in his eye that says 'civil rights violation'") and as Doc's pseudo-friendly nemesis. He detests the so-called subversive elements and wants to wipe the city of the any lingering "Mansonoid" elements. His, and thus the LAPD's presence, looms over the film like a schoolyard bully.
But even those who had it good in the straight world seem to be trying to escape their own reality. Bigfoot harbors a pain from his past that drives his bottled rage, taking it out on Doc and channeling it into small acting roles. Our first encounter with him we see he's in a television commercial dressed as a caricature of one of those hippies he so despises, the self-loathing bleeding through the tube. Eventually Doc finds that Wolfmann's fate is tied up in an attempt to deviate from this straight world, misguided in the eyes of the Nixon administration. It was another decade, and all that hippie shit was done with. There's a new boss in town.
Anderson works with even more plot than in Boogie Nights, but ultimately its intricacies don't matter. Let the madcap shagginess overwhelm you like the smoke in a hotboxed 1968 Dodge Dart. The director has gone on the record multiple times saying he wanted Inherent Vice to have the feel of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy (Airplane!, Top Secret!, etc.). What lies underneath the comedy is a sense of poignant longing, as if a whole culture has lost its way. Captured by Robert Elswit's grainy camerawork, the smoggy Los Angeles sunlight acts as the dissolve between between the death of a dream and the awakening into an undesired reality. Sure, Doc's a burned out stoner hippie—at least he has something to hold on to.
Inherent Vice opens today in Los Angeles and New York, and nationwide on January 9.