How Inherent Vice Challenges Expectation

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Form follows function.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s seminal Inherent Vice, there are some half dozen characters introduced to the protagonist in the first scene. He doesn’t know what’s happening, and neither do we; the interaction between Doc Sportello and Shasta Fay Hepworth is jarring, confusing, and above all, off-putting. The temptation to pause the film and read an analysis (or stop watching all together) is strong, but for those who soldier on, dive deeper, and look to the subtext, they will be rewarded with...more of the same.

There is little to no resolution for the various sub-plots, Sportello’s own quest to find Hepworth, or his relationship with an uptight detective with more than a few vices of his own. Inherent Vice lays its entire story out at the start, knowing it won’t make sense yet, then spends the next two and half hours making it worse. Cinematography from Robert Elswit is beautiful but rarely complex, and the story is decidedly un-exciting: it’s a talky, long, exhaustive film that hides the key to its brilliance in plain sight.

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Drunkard, smoker, hallucinator: there are few 70s stereotypes that don’t apply to Doc Sportello. He sports mutton chops, and keeps his hair at a length just manageable enough not to be nested by a crow. What Anderson slips in, however, are his subtle differences from the archetypal, stiff male PI’s of the decade: Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes. Both smart, able-bodied men with indescribable charisma, masters of their minds and surroundings. Whether the case be difficult or impossible, it’s always due to them that it is resolved. Doc Sportello is like Columbo without the brain. Early on, he is nearly always in over his head as he jots down vague notes during a potential meeting with a client, or looks completely lost in a conversation between himself and a friend. As a viewer, these are harmless or forgettable quirks: inconsequential to the story, and hardly clues to the greater mystery of the film. Joaquin Phoenix plays Sportello with the dynamics of a master, but it’s a far cry from his then most recent performance in Spike Jonez’s her. In her, Phoenix is a romance-starved writer for other people's love letters, and falls into the seductive maw of anticipatory technology. He should be in love with someone real, morally, but that’s not the point of the film. His version of life is not ours; much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s for this film. Inherent Vice is not like her, or Dirty Harry or Chinatown. There are no massive shootouts, no drug busts, or even rewarding character moments. It’s constantly throwing new ideas in your face, expecting the viewer to absorb them and understand what they mean for Sportello; if we could step out of our movie-nerd heads for a moment, we’d see that misses the point.

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It’s easy to think that with many years of experience we should be able to piece together a perplexing story into something resembling an arc. Couple that with the expectation that movies exist to tell stories, ones that will largely result in meaningful payoffs. Inherent Vice dangles convention with intrigue, a charismatic lead, and the promise of criminal-related violence, but there is no fastidious resolution. Take one of the film’s last scenes, a bizarre encounter between Sportello and Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornson. Previously seen as someone with his anger (mostly) under control, Bigfoot kicks down Sportello’s door with a comical slam, and sits face to face with Sportello on the floor for a talking-to. The scene ends with Bigfoot shoveling Sportello’s weed into his mouth, while the sound design picks up every muted crunch between his teeth. He leaves, exhaling and chewing, and the film has found its conclusion. There is a clue to comprehending this scene hidden directly in the center: the film has shown that Sportello is a screw-up, or at least incapable of his job, and as Bigfoot wolfs down his supply, Sportello’s expression changes from swirling to confused to childish. He’s completely lost, as is the audience, blindsided by the sudden change in personality by the (usually) level-headed Detective Bigfoot. Instead of trying to make sense of it, why not look to the source material? Or more accurately, the form of the material, Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel the film was based on.

One of the most effective tools in character-based literature is the use of an unreliable narrator. The Catcher in the Rye, Grendel, the outrageous opening of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Katherine Mansfield’s enlightened narrator in Bliss; all of which enrich the text and are completely unavoidable. In Faulkner’s novel, the narrator is a mentally impaired man delivering a convoluted stream of consciousness, better interpreted as a character study than a narrative. In film, it’s easy to believe that we are looking at a complete picture, and that any gaps in the story are logical faults of our own. The grand scales of Gone With the Wind, Saving Private Ryan, and Barry Lyndon are driven by massive plots and memorable characters, both of which communicate the story to an audience that has typically come to the movies to be told one. If the narrative is too zig-zagging, there are always personalities to latch onto. Inherent Vice toys with this expectation by presenting a story that is incomprehensible from a plot basis, forcing the viewer to pick the path of least resistance.

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On first watch, it might seem like there are no good routes to take in Inherent Vice: following the story almost certainly leads to brain-dead confusion, as multiple events are shot in dream-like conditions, and side characters appear for show-stopping breaks in logic. Take Martin Short’s Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, who appears for a few scenes to snort coke and answer frivolous questions. He reveals next to nothing for Sportello, and though his scene is one of the funniest in the film, it’s also one of the least important. He’s a distraction. By giving expressive actors these infrequent roles, PTA draws attention to the part of Inherent Vice that makes the least sense, and our expectation (partly encouraged by the trailer) that this will be a comedy. By this scene, Doc has sat at bars, chatted with Bigfoot, saved a cultist, and chatted with Bigfoot some more; a humorous encounter is just what we expect. When Shasta pours her story out on Doc in the first scene, an expectation is set: the mystery will be seen through, and the film will do its part to show what is needed to make sense of it. This resolution never arrives; it leaves the audience in the lurch, on purpose, and aims them toward the real story.

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Instead of wading through the plot, let’s look at 1970s Los Angeles through the eyes of a stoner; a loser, but a guarded one, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a master of subverting expectations. From the film’s trailer, Sportello looks like the goofy, in-over-his-head P.I. seen in countless other stories. He gets into trouble that’s just outside his pay-grade, stumbles onto solutions more often than he deduces them, and is prone to drug-induced mood-changes. Through this lens, there isn’t a bit of gray area to Inherent Vice. It’s all a lost cause: our narrator is an idiot. The expectation to believe that Sportello is the street-wise P.I. he sees himself as is easy to buy into, but the supporting cast paints a different picture. Sportello is a screw-up, a low-life; far from wise enough to crack the ever-expanding mystery that seems to manifest at his every move. In the film’s first exposition dump, Doc is stoned, both literally and figuratively: he’s on another planet as Shasta Fay Hepworth delivers her plight. Trying to make sense of a story that doesn’t make sense to the main character is fruitless, and must be looked at from his worldview. From there, things begin to click. Case in point, the final scene: Bigfoot’s trampling makes a lot more sense when it’s not real, or better yet, not literal at all. At this point in the story Sportello has had his head flipped numerous times, meant to believe that certain characters were against him and that his oddest clients were his most important. Good-guy cop guzzling a plate of weed into his gullet is the perfect frame for Doc’s confusion.

When inspecting a film as impenetrable as Inherent Vice, it should not be taken at face value. There are secrets, symbols, and colors to dissect (it is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie), but rarely does a film make its story purposely difficult. It forces the viewer to draw a different conclusion: a ravaged and picturesque LA is the contrasting, double-standard image Sportello can’t escape, even when the situation calls for it. He’s trapped in his own neurosis, unable or unwilling to discern between reality and fiction. It flips our expectations over, burns them and serves them cold. Inherent Vice is a literary adaptation, a character study, written and directed by one of the more character-focused directors of our time, and it is not changed to be approachable. The world is meant to serve the character; whether it be cumbersome or simple is not important: Doc is the main event.