Ode to the death of hippie idealism


Inherent Vice (MA). Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts. 149 minutes

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his drug-addled evisceration of the American Dream, iconoclastic author Hunter S. Thompson lamented the evident failure of the 1960s counterculture. Just five years earlier — says Thompson's avatar, Raoul Duke — in San Francisco, heartland of the hippie zeitgeist, 'there was madness in any direction, at any hour … You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning …'

There was, Duke continues, a 'sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil … We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave … now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.'

A similar lament can be heard between the hazy lines of American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, Inherent Vice. An adaptation of a shambolic Thomas Pynchon crime novel, it is set in Los Angeles in 1970, at a time when the idealism of hippie culture has begun to collapse under the weight of its own excesses, and of a conservative status quo too corrupt and brutal to withstand.

Its antihero is private investigator 'Doc' Sportello (Phoenix), an aging stoner who is enlisted by his ex, Shasta (Waterston), to foil a plot against her lover, real estate magnate Micky Wolfmann (Roberts). Shortly afterwards, Wolfmann and Shasta mysteriously disappear. As Doc muddles his way through the case, he finds himself pitted against crooked cops and violent criminals alike.

The film is a virtuoso stoner epic that owes as much to Cheech and Chong as to noir filmmakers like Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly). Anderson, the indie auteur behind such gems as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, captures an utterly weird and hilarious performance from Phoenix, who mugs and mumbles his way through the film — sometimes to its detriment, given the complexities of the plot.

As a matter of fact, the at-times incomprehensible plot has been the biggest knock against the film. But Inherent Vice has plenty to offer patient (and perhaps repeat) viewers, especially fans of Anderson's densely layered writing and bravura directorial style.

As Doc's investigation leads him through the near-ruins of the counterculture (the Manson murders thrum in the story's recent muscle-memory) and dangerously close to the halls of power (both on the side of the law and outside it), Anderson paints a world where corrupt government forces are turning 'subversive' elements' (hippies' and/or alleged socialists') own vices against them. It is not dissimilar to the near-future dystopia portrayed by Philip K. Dick in his masterpiece A Scanner Darkly.

Not least of its joys is the wonderful supporting ensemble, which includes Waterston's fallen-pixie Shasta, who shares a sweet but complicated relationship with Doc; Brolin as surly but damaged Lieutenant Detective 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen; and an uncharacteristically straight-laced Wilson as a police informant who has gotten in too deep, and who is the film's unofficial voice-of-conscience.

It must be said that the drug related humour does not always sit easily, and not solely for cinematic reasons. In 1993 Phoenix's brother, River, famously died of a drug overdose, in front of a club owned by Johnny Depp. Depp later played Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam's fantastic adaptation of Fear and Loathing, which led the film critic Roger Ebert to wonder how Depp could see much humour in the material. One might now be tempted to ask the same question of Phoenix, who was present during his brother's overdose.

But to reduce either Fear and Loathing or Inherent Vice to the sums of their hedonistic parts would seem to miss the point. In both films the cultural commentary burbles to the surface amid the colour and noise, lending some sense and shape to what might otherwise feel like a mess of excess. The term 'inherent vice' of the title refers to 'a property or defect in a physical object that causes it to deteriorate due to the fundamental instability of its components'. This is analogous both to the humanly flawed and socially marginal Doc and to the crumbling counterculture for which he stands. The film may be a comedy, but you don't have to dig too deep to find that underneath lies tragedy.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Hunter S. Thompson



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Existing comments

There's a book to be written about the loss of faith in the chance of political legal and social reform that briefly bloomed for Gough, and even Paul, and now decays under Shorten. I might just write the screenplay, based on our memoirs, we baby boomer idealists. Eheu.

moira | 19 March 2015  

One might be excused for thinking that the counterculure was/is completely characterisd by 'inherent vice'. This position may be largely a product of the fact that bad news is good news for the arts and media. The counterculture also had/has a lot of inherent virtue which is beginning to pay off in our growing consciousness that the Earth really is our mother and we must take care of her. Forty years ago I was rather hopelessly submitting to inquiries screeds about the essential role of solar energy in our existence. Now solar energy is close to mainstream and intelligent investors are dropping their coal shares like hot cakes. The same goes for countercultural concerns about pollution, equity, gender and all the other issues that are beginning to gain traction in the face of the inherent vice of our current crop of red and blue tied apparatchiks.

Jeffrey | 20 March 2015  

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