Inherent Vice

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This entertaining movie has been described as a “surfer noir” and Joaquin Phoenix’s private investigator, Doc, as not so much a “gumshoe” as a “gum sandal”. It is the first film to be based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon and is suffused with dope smoke, paranoia and trippy episodes. The novel, which was published in 2009, renders 1960s Los Angeles counter-culture with aching nostalgia.

The film is set in 1970 where the optimism of the previous decade is giving way to consumerism, cynicism and corruption. Ronald Reagan has been elected governor of California; Richard Nixon president of the US; the Manson Family murders in Beverly Hills are still in the news; and the Hell’s Angels security team have beaten a teenage fan to death at the Rolling Stones’s free concert at Altamont, California. If the 1960s were the high, this is the comedown.

The voice-over asks, “Was it possible that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?” Doc’s quest begins when his “Ex Old Lady” asks him to find Michael Z Wolfmann, her billionaire property tycoon boyfriend. He has been kidnapped and is threatened with being locked up in a “booby-hatch”. The Reagan-privatised mental hospital advertises itself with the slogans “Straight is hip” and “It’s not groovy to be insane”.

People go missing and then reappear under different names. All the while, in the background, there’s the mystery of the Golden Fang. What is it? And why are people so afraid of it? Everything revolves around Doc, the mumbling, stoner PI. It is another mesmerising performance from Phoenix, who previously collaborated with Anderson on The Master in 2012.

Most of the superb supporting cast provide little more than cameo appearances. The wonderful Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s lawyer deserves more screen time, as do Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from HBO’s The Wire) as a black guerrilla and Reese Witherspoon as a deputy district attorney.

My criticism of the film is its troubling gender politics. Other than Witherspoon — who is becoming a serious force in Hollywood — the women are only seen in relation to their men; they are usually showing considerable amounts of flesh; and the one sex scene in the movie is quite horrible. This could be for many reasons. Maybe it accurately reflects the position of women during the “free love” era. But whereas anti-war, Black Power and radical political movements are represented, albeit fleetingly, the nascent women’s movement is completely ignored. I suspect that both the author and film maker felt they were being ironic in their depiction of women. But it just comes across as old fashioned sexism.

As a homage to film noir detective movies, exploring property deals and personal and financial corruption in LA around 40 years in the past, Inherent Vice recalls Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie Chinatown. But unlike Polanski’s classic, it is played mainly for laughs and drips with a shallow, naive nostalgia.