Inherent Vice Asks, “Ya Dig?” Yeah, Man, Far Out.

by Matthew Cabe


As far as plot goes, Sortilége lays out the gist pretty succinctly in the trailer for Inherent Vice: “If it’s a quiet night out at the beach and your ex old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire, land-developer boyfriend, and his wife, and her boyfriend, and a plot to kidnap the billionaire and throw him in a loony bin, maybe you should just look the other way. But if you’re Doc, it may all start to get a little peculiar after that.”

Sortilége is the narrator and sometimes ghostly presence who pops up once in a while as the manifestation of “Doc” Sportello’s (played hazily by Joaquin Phoenix) gut feeling. As the definition of her name suggests though (you can look that up on your own), she might also be something more omniscient and enchanting, which would explain how she knows the plot even before Doc slowly pieces some of it together.

But the plot isn’t what Inherent Vice is about. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) uses it, and a myriad of characters therein, to reveal what’s going on underneath the surface, which has more to do with uncertainty amidst inevitable cultural and topographical transformation, and the loneliness felt in reaction to those changes.

Doc is an aging hippie and a private investigator, and it’s often difficult to discern which he’s better at. He liberally smokes grass while interviewing people who may or may not lead him toward answers he’s not even sure he needs. Occasionally, he scribbles key words down onto a small notepad not because they’re pertinent to anything in his investigation, but because they’re what his pot-addled brain clings to in a given moment.

The whole thing gets pretty convoluted, but this never kills the film’s vibe. A long cast of supporting characters who, like Doc’s ex old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston), often show up out of nowhere to further complicate matters with misinformation to appease their equally convoluted motives.

Some of them, like Doc, are hippies. Others are prostitutes or musicians. A few appear to be straight-laced. And others are strange mutations of 1950’s domesticity begrudgingly altered by a decade of counter-culture grooviness that has only slowly started to fall out of fashion by 1970, the year in which the story takes place. These mutations are holier than thou, dress anachronistically out of respect and yearning for that simpler era gone by, and have learned to navigate their present by letting go their former innocence to combat and financially gain from the waning counter culture’s own weapon (or vice): drugs.

Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, brought to life by a frustratingly pent up Josh Brolin in one of his best performances, is one of these mutations. He’s even more complex though because his frustration stems from the faux seriousness he must display to gain respect and a growing itch to know what might happen if he were to just stop giving a shit.

But he’s too buttoned-up to let a decent high loosen him up (a wild drug-ingestion scene proves this). Still, Brolin’s Bigfoot is the perfect foil to Phoenix’s seemingly laid back Doc because their differences reveal in one another an interior curiosity for change at a crucial moment in time that’s bringing more than a little wear and tear to both their exteriors. They seem to have a fondness for one another that goes unspoken because they’re unsure what each sees in the other to be fond of.

Like Solitége warned, things do get a little peculiar so don’t feel bad if you’re confused. It’s best to do what Doc or Bigfoot aren’t capable of, which is to embrace the strangeness of change. The movie sure does. By the end, everything is as hazy as Doc’s mind. It’s unclear whether he accomplished the mission, failed miserably, or got sidetracked by favors he paid to other people he met along the way. Like the plot, however, these particulars don’t really matter and Anderson points that out by leading us all over southern California with no real destination in mind.

This aimlessness has led some critics to compare Inherent Vice to Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski, but there’s a definite structure and neatness to the the Coen’s film that doesn’t exist in Anderson’s. Lebowski has aimless characters; Inherent Vice has a story that wanders as much as its main character.

What’s more interesting though is that unlike Jeff Bridges’s Dude, who’s never truly affected by what happens around him, Phoenix’s Doc shows faint glimmers of actual interest in what the changes occurring around him mean and how they’ll affect the people he cares about (Shasta, specifically). What is happening to the Los Angeles he knew? What will this new decade bring with it? Is he destined to remain lonely and isolated in the nebulous world of Gordita Beach? Will the uncertainty ever diminish? No one really knows.

What is certain though is that even the slightest rumination on change means an awareness of its existence, no matter how undefinable it is. He’s not inherently incapable of preserving himself, as the title suggests. Doc simply knows that nothing lasts; his yearning for the Shasta he once knew and loved is evidence enough. And that awareness suggests that unlike the immortal Dude, the present Doc will not abide forever.