One of the more unforgivably brusque gripes I’ve overheard on a post-Inherent Vice screening is from someone who dares to contest Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic work. “What’s the point of all that?” this person remarked, profusely, and with palpable irritation as though being unable to fully comprehend and enjoy a PT Anderson film is anathema to his own existence. A remark to which I responded in my own head, imaginatively rather than practically, “Confusion is exactly the point, you fool.” You can only figure out why I didn’t say this out loud, as otherwise there won’t be much mystery as to why the cranky fellow would beat my sodding arse to the floor if he heard this. So, to expand on this theory of confusion using the few clusters of functional brain cells left in my head, bewilderment is precisely the raison d’être of Inherent Vice – a mega-convoluted screwball tragicomedy wrapped up in hardboiled noir and clouded by a hazy, woozy, weed-smoked existential fog. It certainly ain’t easy deciphering this one, with a labyrinthine plot that swerves from one venue to the next – from beaches to whorehouses, bikini boudoirs, asylums, investigation units, japanese pancake houses, shady lairs and hippie dens – without much of a signpost as to where the narrative has led (or misled) us and who the actual fuck is Joaquin Phoenix talking to and how are these panoply of bizarre characters relevant to the entire show. I hear your frustration, dear readers, but that deep well of beffudlement and thoughts of pointlessness is precisely the point of this elusive, often inspired, film.[divider]+[/divider]
Bewilderment is precisely the raison d’être of Inherent Vice – a mega-convoluted screwball tragicomedy wrapped up in hardboiled noir and clouded by a hazy, woozy, weed-smoked existential fog[divider]+[/divider]
One could argue that Anderson’s films are mostly about the confusions of our modern age. Where Magnolia is about the collective confusions of contemporary, urban LA life and that Boogie Nights centres on a pornstar who confuses success with the vitality and girth of his dick and that The Master revolves around one man’s profound confusion of his place and happiness in cult religion, Inherent Vice portrays the grand confusion of the era of hippie Americana, when the toils of counterculture have descended into a moral decay, with the Manson murders and debauched drug use, followed by a generational hangover and comedown that’s soon exploited by an increasingly rigid political system of the 1970’s.
I haven’t lived through this decade, but it’s films like this that help us then-unborns picture what it’s like to be in that era. There isn’t a scene in Inherent Vice that Phoenix’s magnificently sideburned, hippie private-dick Larry “Doc” Sportello doesn’t look either perpetually stoned or utterly confused, as he investigates the case of one Shasta Fay Hepworth (a beautifully modulated performance by newcomer Katharine Hepston), who happens to be an ex-flame that’s involved in top-magnate, celebrity scandals. To summarise a lengthy, circuitous plot, the beautiful but troubled chick goes AWOL and Doc goes to pursue her whereabouts, resulting in a knockabout (mis)encounters of Thomas Pynchon’s wild catalogue of aesthetically heightened human beings at the edge of, well, something.
That ‘something’ – ever so slippery, depending on your grasp – is open to many interpretations. Deep down, my gut tells me that message beheath Anderson and Pynchon’s deliberate obfuscation and complexity might be unexpectedly simple. Could it be a lament to the death of a liberated era, the American freedom? Quite possibly. Or perhaps an indictment to the rising corporatised system designed to squash the individual? Very likely. But the main clue perhaps lie on the film’s title – Inherent Vice, a cargo insurance term, as described by the gaudily seductive, husky voice of Joanna Newsom, that defines the inevitability of destruction – eggs break, glass shatters, etc. Here, the term is extended as a piece of existenial cynicism. Love ends, hearts break, freedom dies and happiness fade away. Nothing lasts forever.