'Inherent Vice' a ball of confusion

By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Raymond Chandler meets Elmore Leonard, Cheech and Chong and Thomas Pynchon’s literary pretensions in the drug haze of the semi-comic detective story “Inherent Vice.”

Time: a quarter past the late ’60s.

Place: Southern California.

'Inherent Vice' movie trailer

In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry "Doc" Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

L.A. vice isn’t much different from Miami vice, except in the degree of seediness, epitomized by private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s minding his own stoner business, lighting up a joint in his tacky apartment, when surprised by the sudden return of his winsome ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She hits him with a crazy story about her new billionaire boyfriend, whose wife — and the wife’s new boyfriend — are plotting to kidnap the billionaire, stow him away in a loony bin and make off with his dough. Shasta begs Doc’s help to thwart the scheme.

But, as someone observes, “These are perilous times for dopers, astrologically.”

In Doc’s case, the peril lies in his long love-hate history with LAPD Lt. Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) — so named for his trademark method of kicking down people’s doors while happily violating their civil rights. He has an arcane, extravagant manner of speaking. The Los Angeles Times once described him as “a Renaissance detective.” But he’s bitter about never having parlayed his fame into a TV movie deal.

Chief among the plethora of wonderfully named hustlers, hookers and dopers populating this yarn: Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), the billionaire real estate developer, who is “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi.” His office is next to Chick Planet Massage, which offers a menu of X-rated services and is guarded by a platoon of Aryan Brotherhood bikers. They’re all vaguely connected to something called Golden Fang, which is both a boat and a money-laundering operation involving the heroin trade and a syndicate of criminal dentists led by Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (hilariously played by Martin Short) — soon to perish in a tragic trampoline accident.

There’s also Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Doc’s useless lawyer, and a ditzy receptionist named Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph).

But mostly there’s marijuana, in combination with nitrous oxide et al. drugs du jour, fueling the vertical integration of corruption and paranoia all around. (“Any gathering of three or more will be considered possible evidence of a cult,” the police declare.) It all leads, circuitously, to the ultimate insane asylum — a product of Gov. Ronald Reagan’s shutting down the state’s mental facilities and “privatizing” them to wacko subcontractors.

What’s with the title? Seems that “inherent vice” is an insurance policy term referring to a hidden defect that causes an item or property to deteriorate and makes it an unacceptable risk for an insurer.

Like all of the reclusive Mr. Pynchon’s dense, complex novels, this one sports a rich mix of postmodern devices and themes — conspiracy, synchronicity, American entropy — and, as with his celebrated “Gravity's Rainbow,” leaps back and forth between highbrow and lowbrow culture in his self-consciously intricate prose. Mr. Pynchon could not have wished for a more reverent handler than director Paul Thomas Anderson for this first transition of one of his novels to film. The maker of such gems as “There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Master,” Mr. Anderson adds California noir touches of “Chinatown” and “The Long Goodbye” to this stoner romp — in the end, less a whodunit than an existential shaggy dog story.

A highlight of the film is the long, hot nude scene in which Shasta gives an apologia pro vita sua while slowly running her foot up and down Doc’s thighs. It peaks with a sudden violent sexual explosion, followed by her kittenish question, “Does that mean we’re back together?”

The answer is no. But the scene, plus the nifty vintage Neil Young songs and the new musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, has impact. So do the cameos of Jeannie Berlin as Doc’s aunt and Reese Witherspoon as his sort-of D.A. girlfriend.

Mr. Phoenix — with his marvelously visible cleft-lip scar — looks a lot like John Lennon and works hard in the role. But he’s too dark to be as whimsically amusing as his character needs to be. This is, or was, more of a Johnny Depp part.

Further, in the Funny Dept.: Owen Wilson does a nice turn. Delaina Mitchell is uproarious in her sole scene as Bigfoot’s irate wife Chastity. But Mr. Pynchon’s mordant humor is a rarefied thing. (“Jimmy Wong Howe did the lighting for us years ago,” says Wolfmann’s sexy, unfaithful wife of their fabulous living room. You have to know that Howe was one of Garbo’s cinematographers.)

The plot of “Inherent Vice” is difficult to follow on the page, and virtually impossible to follow on the screen — even with an indulgent 2½-hour running time. There were precious few laughs at the screening. Puzzled silence at the end. However charmingly deranged and original, both the book and film alike are too genre-referential for their own good.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at parispg48@aol.com.

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