It’s not something you think about often but stoners and film noir fit together fairly well. Why more people haven’t capitalized on this niche is rather surprising. Think about it for a moment. Film noir in the classic sense is known for its private eyes, femme fatales, chiaroscuro cinematography, and perhaps most importantly a jaded worldview straight out of Ecclesiastes.
Some of the greats are also notorious for utterly baffling plots that come to no clear conclusion. Still, rather than chocking it up to faulty storytelling, these unfathomable aspects only lead to a greater ambiguity. Thus, you can imagine what occurs when our point of reference is on something. You take something that is already indecipherable and make it absolutely impossible to discern reality because there’s no sense of knowing what is actually real even before funneling down to specific plot points. Inherent Vice is precisely that film, a neo-noir bathed in rays and full of dopers.
Paul Thomas Anderson makes this affectionate and supposedly quite faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel connect most obviously through voice over. It captures a certain rhetoric — the poetic lyricism that manages to anchor the plot in some bewitching way — while also providing a great deal of latitude in storytelling which the narrative gladly capitalizes on.
This private investigator, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is a benevolent stoner. His girl Shasta flutters back into his life and like they always do she comes as the bearer of bad news — a flower child in trouble with a lead for him to follow before she disappears into the night. Being a private eye he follows up the loose threads but he’s not necessarily a good private eye or a generally judicious one and that doesn’t bode well.
It’s pointless to try and tie everything together. In fact, this is as good a time as any to disclose that Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, and Owen Wilson all show up but it’s almost possible to forget about them.
Doc investigates some vague leads about one real estate owner Mickey Wolfmann who has disappeared, gets word of a mysterious syndicate called the Golden Fang while searching after a member of a cult, and subsequently gets hired to find a missing husband. His worst enemy and greatest ally simultaneously is Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). All the cases get resolved without the least bit of satisfying closure.
Still, the incomprehensible plot highlighted by absurdities is almost something that needs to be expected from a film such as this built out of the tradition of The Big Sleep (1946), The Long Goodbye (1974), and even Harper (1966). It’s another knowing riff off of the private eye pictures of old.
The bottom line being that precise malaise. It’s easy to lose it amid the stoned out status quo, characters medicating themselves on smokes and drugs and drink. They seem happy enough. At the very least they’re not torn apart by anything. And yet the very fact that Doc in particular witnesses so much — unveils so many things — and remains despondent is indicative of the whole story.
It’s an understated chill comedy that is meant to mesh rather ironically with the film noir world and like Altman’s film before it, there’s this lovely incongruity that works so well. All highlighted by the very fact that we fail to truly discover what is fact and what is fiction.
Everything is taken in stride rather nonchalantly by Doc who ambles along with his various leads in the relaxed manner that will remain his calling card. His attempts at scribbling down notes only result in random word clusters. But, and I hesitate to say this because it might give the wrong impression, in some sense, it does feel like we’ve seen this humor before in Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun (1987).
We like Doc. If he wasn’t high all the time, he’d probably be a pretty nice, cognizant, charming fellow but his response to all that is around him is rather pathetic and pathetic in the way of a dog with his tail between his legs. Flailing to the will of corrupt cops or allowing the vices of others to rule the day. But then again, what is he supposed to do in this world? The everyday villains are too many, the mountain to overcome is too high, and so he slowly sinks back into his fog. It’s a nicer, more comforting place to be than the world at large.
Cross that with Neil Young’s ambient jams in “Journey through the Past” and “Harvest” or the laid-back radio plays of 93 KHJ including The Cascades, The Association, Sam Cooke, and Kyu Sakamoto and it goes down pleasantly. As do the agreeable touchstones of Adam-12 and “Three Hour Tours” on primetime television.
It provides the film with a bit of the nostalgic haze that still manages scintillating vibes of sunny Southern California. But no one need remind any of these characters that this is the same beach paradise that saw the egregious murders committed by the Manson family, the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, the Watts Riots, and so on and so forth.
Taking a hit can sustain for a momentary high. Embracing your girl in the pouring rain can remain a fond memory. Music can float through your brain lazily. Television makes a nice diversion. The pursuit of money and power can drive a life for a while. But surely life is more than all of these — the things we use to mask the hurt and the pain we are subjected to as human beings — the numerous distractions in this “postmodern” world of ours. Surely there’s gotta be more…