Inherent Vice and the Triumph of Experience Over Plot

A feeling. A mood. An experience.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’ seventh feature film, the filmmaker returns to working with Joaquin Phoenix in the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, whose premise revolves around stoner P.I. Doc Sportello (Phoenix) and his investigation into the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend. This very loose premise serves as the catalyst for an array of set-pieces, zany characters, and uniquely cinematic sequences that transport the viewer into a very distinctive setting freed from typical narrative constrains and an emotional reality similarly unlike those typically offered by the genre. While many have complained that this convoluted plotting distracts, rather than complements, the trajectory of the characters, Inherent Vice instead turns such confusion into its advantage by demanding the viewer focus on the experience of the moment, rather than the mechanics of the plot, to conjure an atypical journey through this bygone version of Los Angeles.

Moreover, Inherent Vice could not be less concerned with connecting every dot, paying off every subplot, or holding the audience’s hand through this unconventional story set within an even stranger setting—nor should it. Instead, the film focuses on making sure that its most functional elements are understood, only to whisk them away at the arrival of the next piece of information, yanking the audience by the shoulder throughout this absurd and eccentric tale. Some of which includes: police corruption, hippies, drug-addicted dentists, the Black Panthers, a missing Saxaphone player, and numerous other elements that all converge against this densely-woven tapestry of Los Angeles, 1970.

In doing so, the audience must forgo the normal narrative conventions that accompany the procedural aspects of a detective story and embrace the relentless propulsion of Pynchon’s unbridled imagination. Perhaps unexpectedly, this has led to varied responses of backlash against the film’s favoring of atmosphere and mood over typical expository devices. Like its protagonist, the narrative remains under the constant psychedelic mindset of things never appearing exactly as they are, and presenting a world whose morals are shaded with ambiguous colors. And consequentially, the audience experiences these rollercoaster sways of emotion in tandem with Doc: the overbearing paranoia, the rapidly shifting confusion of information, the painful nostalgia of memories, and the negotiation of his moral compass under the weight of it all.

PTA further filters these experiences through a narrative that camouflages itself into best each sequence has to offer as though acting in genres of their own. Inherent Vice is at once a hard-boiled detective story, a psychedelic noir, a visual comedy taking cues from the Zuckers, an exploration of a romance, and a gut-busting broad comedy. Each element highlighting a certain range of psychology and emotion occupied by Doc and his companions throughout this purposefully obfuscated case. And throughout each, Doc navigates the distrustful clues, unreliable accomplices, and unraveling details that hinge on his drug-addled perspective being able to distinguish the right thing to do.

Though PTA’s previous works have revolved around some allegorical version of America, and California specifically, Inherent Vice moves away from a more obvious representation of this idea by focusing on a more abstract depiction of the era in question. Like Doc, the audience relives the post-Manson paranoia of “hippies”, the joy of getting caught in the rain with your girlfriend, the tension between the rising counterculture movement and bureaucratic systems of old. Inherent Vice will no doubt continue to polarize audiences arriving with certain expectations of what a movie should deliver. Those expecting a detective story with loose ends tied up for them, with the obvious procedural elements presented in predictable fashion, or the straightforward emotional highs and low that arrive at all the obvious pinpoints of a movie’s running time—this will be a baffling disappointment. However, those able to embrace this unusual cinematic approach will be rewarded with an equally unusual and satisfying experience—one that hypnotizes the viewer into the intertwined haze of its characters and narrative to render an unforgettable, sensorial impression of life in Los Angeles through feeling, mood, and experience.

Nick Yarborough, Film writer at Seroword

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