Inherent Vice: Cartoons, Networked

As Inherent Vice begins, it’s 1970 and California is at that awkward age. The utopian ecstasies of hippie excess will flatten into a lifestyle of socially manageable hedonism; state, corporate, and criminal interests will cooperate to integrate both upscale libertinism and gutter-level addiction into a sleekly cohesive narco-therapeutic industrial complex. This world could use a fall guy like Doc Sportello.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fascination with Joaquin Phoenix is corporeal and infectious. In The Master, the camera spelunked the shadowed crags of the actor’s face. Here, closeups lovingly exaggerate the sculptural mass of his head, weighted with the proud mane and mutton chops of a congressman about to take the floor debate the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska act. Forever jolting himself into alertness and thrusting back his shoulders to feign authority, Phoenix-as-Doc is a slapstick clown repeatedly shoehorning himself into the role of straight man to the noir cartoons he investigates.

As in all the best animation, most of the supporting characters are drawn boldly enough that two dimensions are all you need. But there are two nuanced exceptions. Katherine Waterston’s sad eyes reveal Shasta Fay as more than the surf-toned naif her willowy, bikini-bottomed appearance suggests, hinting at a life arc beyond her plot-spurring uses. This independence is erotic, dramatized when an exhibitionist monologue of her time away from Doc (and us) becomes an elaborate kind of foreplay. And Anderson finds in Pynchon’s text one of those clashes between symbiotic male antagonists he so loves, setting John Brolin loose to stomp across the film as a brutal shell of deep-crammed neuroses that surface whenever a choco-dipped ice cream phallus nears his mouth.

Tweaked genre convention or no, Joanna Newsom’s kewpie-gravel voice-overs are a gratuitous device to shoehorn extra Pynchon prose into a film that doesn’t need the help — it finds its way from A to B with an effectiveness that never degrades into mere efficiency. Though Doc brushes briefly up against peripheral plots (in the politically sinister as well as merely narrative sense) that may continue to unfold off camera, the detective and the film alike stagger forward with a befogged determination, and so both find a pleasant enough place to rest temporarily that’s as happy and as much an ending as Anderson can get away with.

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  • […] and played by Joaquin Phoenix in his wooziest yet most alert performance to date. To quote Keith Harris, “As in all the best animation, most of the supporting characters are drawn boldly enough […]

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