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Savant Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

Inherent Vice
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
Warner Home Video
2014 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 148 min. / Street Date April 28, 2015 / 35.99
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Joanna Newsom, Benecio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, .Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, Hong Chau, Vivienne Khaledi, Yvette Yates, Jack Kelly, Belladonna, Elaine Tan, Sasha Pieterse, Keith Jardine, Martin Donovan.
Robert Elswit
Film Editor Leslie Jones
Original Music Jonny Greenwood
from the book by Thomas Pynchon
Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Inherent Vice is a ride into a mythologized version of a very specific past. You know the feeling that hits when a movie's setting and characters seem true to a part of your past? Venice, California was my stomping grounds from roughly 1973 to 1980. One of the first images in this picture is a view of the ocean between two buildings, as framed by the bumpers of two parked cars. The beach, with bungalows and parked cars jammed together -- that's exactly the feel. Only this "Gordita Beach" looks more like Manhattan Beach, where author Thomas Pynchon once lived: Venice Beach has no hill. One big wave would wash halfway to Lincoln Blvd.

Cult author Thomas Pynchon couldn't be content with a simple neo-noir that pits hippies against cops, with idealism bulldozed by paranoia. Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Magnolia also confront So-Cal social aberrations, generating mostly hysteria and misplaced sympathy. But in this show Anderson has Pynchon's eclectic stew of apocryphal counterculture notions to work with. Hero private detective Larry 'Doc' Sportello is an exaggeration, yet anybody who lived in Venice in 1973 would recognize him in a heartbeat. Couple that with a spot-on eye for imagery -- no Magnolia faux-profundity here -- and Inherent Vice comes up a big winner. I'd say that things begin to tame down at about the three-quarter mark, when the story has finally run out of surprises to knock us out of our chairs. But Pynchon/Anderson never settle for cheap cynicism. It's a pleasant fable.

Oh, and about the cast. This an episodic adventure with an ensemble of supporting characters given equal emphasis. Few show up for more than a scene or two. Inherent Vice is populated with the whole phone book of Freak City, played by a wide range of talent, much of it new and very promising.

It's 1970-ish in post- Manson Los Angeles. Much of the movie is narrated by Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), using the refined hardboiled / hipster text from Pynchon's novel. Apparently working from whatever room happens to be available at the Free Clinic, total stoner private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is up to his ears in missing persons and shady conspiracies straight out of '40s detective fiction. Crass millionaire promoter Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) levels ethnic neighborhoods to build trendy new housing, and sells it on TV like Cal Worthington sells cars. But he's disappeared. The rumor is that Wolfmann's wife, a criminal mob or maybe even the F.B.I. have hidden him away. Doc is particularly concerned because his old girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) has been in a sexual 'thing' with Wolfmann, the wife and who-knows-else for quite a while -- and she's missing as well. Doc worships Shasta like a dream vision, and is obsessed with getting her back. The other missing celebrity is rock saxophone player Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), whose wife Hope (Jena Malone) and small daughter fear for his safety. Hope tells Doc that she and Coy are ex- heroin addicts. Coy became a snitch for the narcs, who wouldn't let him free. Fearing for his life, he's gone underground. Doc doesn't know it, but the outwardly righteous / inwardly psychotic LAPD detective 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is using him to find Harlingen. The Feds lean on Doc as well, with the connivance of Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), who betrays Doc yet stoops to share his dope. The more Doc searches, the closer he gets to a bigger conspiracy that involves yet more bizarro and lethal characters. An overarching criminal conspiracy swirls around a sailing ship called The Golden Fang, which also happens to be the name of an investment consortium overseen by a cocaine-addled dentist, Dr. Rudy Blaynoyd, D.D.S. (Martin Short, deliciously creepy). Have you figured it all out yet?

Doc Sportello is a man of sudden impulses, almost qualifying as a fourth Fabulous Furry Freak Brother. He's too stoned to bathe and often too lazy to wear shoes -- we can't tell if the people wrinkling their noses in his presence are smelling the dope, or just his B.O.. But Doc is also a man on the move. When not contemplating sunsets he's pursuing his mission to help people and get to the bottom of things. He's also a dreamer hoping to regain Paradise in the earthy form of Shasta Fay. The fond reveries of their romance include a lyrical flashback about a day when weed was nowhere to be found. We like Doc; he asks for nothing except dope and to do the right thing.

Inherent Vice is eclectic, all right. Pynchon couldn't have known that he was inventing a genre hybrid that could be called 'Lebowski Noir.' Doc Sportello is Altman's Philip Marlowe as embodied by Elliott Gould, but he's also Jeff Bridges as both Richard Bone and Jeffrey Lewbowski. Doc isn't 'The Dude' but they do have qualities in common. This is a weed & cocaine-soaked variation on Raymond Chandler territory, with the fictional Gordita Beach standing in for Marlowe's fictional 'Bay Cities.' Doc's dope hasn't stunted his libido. He's summoned to various encounters, some that involve sexual offers but just as many that end in turndowns. There's a mysterious Chinese nightclub in San Pedro, and a rock band party house in one of the canyons. An oversexed rich widow conducts a 24-7 orgy in the high hills over Beverly. And don't forget that favorite recurring Chandler locale, an incredibly suspicious New-Age sanitarium with more missing persons in residence than a C.I.A. black ops secret prison. Doc's apparent archenemy Detective Bigfoot is a Pig of many faces. Outwardly a straight arrow Joe Friday, he's the most corrupt SOB alive yet also a closet creampuff crawling in humiliation before his domineering wife.

Pynchon has a million of 'em. We get a deserving ex-junkie with new false teeth, trying to be a good mother (Jena Malone of Into the Wild). We get Aunt Reet (Jeannie Berlin), a daffy old dame who is nevertheless a fountain of accurate information. Black Panther Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Wiliams) is searching for a friend who happens to be a white supremacist. The cagey sea lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (Benecio Del Toro) is often the only thing standing between Doc and a four-count indictment. And don't forget Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), a murderous villain who has apparently made himself untouchable by suborning cops like Det. Bigfoot.

These characters carry with some of the coolest names in hardboiled pulp history: Rhus Frothingham, Japonica Fenway, Clancy Charlock, Burke Stodger, Dr. Lily Hammer, Petunia Leeway. The names are outrageous but each character maintains a touch of authenticity. Remembering the parade of suspects is tough indeed; keeping up hasn't been this difficult since Bogie faced off against Eddie Mars, Carol Lundgren and Arthur Geiger. It's easier on a page when one can always backtrack; I recommend keeping the IMDB open to the film's cast list.

I find all of this deliciously entertaining; but I'm not sure a mass audience would have the same reaction. Inherent Vice isn't a satire or an exercise in spoofery, I'm happy to say. Doc Sportello's emotions are very real when we see his mind drift back to his lost girlfriend. Getting older is a real drag in a place where everybody is supposed to stay young forever; Doc's erotic visions (?) of Shasta have 'Santa Monica '70s Nights' written all over them. Veterans of the decade share his daydreams -- where are those women now?   A nostalgia for the period is very much present. I saw no specific places yet recognized 'my town.' Without resorting to a litany of needle-drop pop music cues, the film's music score evokes the scene three years after Woodstock, when interesting new rock bands no longer appeared at the rate of once a week.

In his ponderous but moving There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson established himself as a filmmaker who goes after the spirit of a book adaptation. Inherent Vice would seem a masterful tightrope walk; one slip and the movie could turn into I Love You Alice B. Toklas. There are no visual gimmicks to speak of. Anderson avoids the self-defeating special effects of something like Taking Woodstock. Anderson sets his scenes up beautifully. He either holds tight on Doc's face, with those incredibly tacky Wolverine sideburns, or he finds the perfect angle with which to play a scene in one shot, perhaps with just a couple of cutaways. I didn't see a single misstep with the actors.

Exactly what in the loopy Inherent Vice connects with the reality I knew? It was impossible not to cross paths with people drifting on the tide of a fading dope culture. I feel like I've met Doc Sportello's type several times. There was a guy like him at UCLA, who seemed years too old for the dorms and was supporting himself by selling dope. When I worked the parking lots in Westwood there was a crazy-like-a-fox Persian guy who took a Ferrari for spin on the 405 while its owner was at the Village watching The Godfather. He once tried to sell me what looked like a stolen Post Office vehicle. And more than one trailer-promo editor I knew reminded me of Sportello's disengagement from 'normal' life, eating fast food all night while trying to finish a job. The film is to the Venice scene like Apocalypse Now is to Vietnam: not a literal snapshot but the mass dream we didn't know we shared.

Inherent Vice is a strange brew and I know it's not going to work for everybody. It streches out for a slightly overlong 2.5 hours. The film's erotic highlight is an encounter that goes on for several minutes without a cut. Something about it broke the mood; it almost lost me. But my immediate reaction to this vivid film is an enthusiastic smile. What else... yes... with this and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, there are now two entire movies I like that feature actor Owen Wilson. I didn't think that would ever happen.

The Warner Home Video Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of Inherent Vice looks fine in the expected picture-perfect transfer of this shot-on-film stoner's epic. The show comes with the WHV's generous language extras -- audio and subtitles in English, French and Spanish. A DVD is included as well as instructions for a Digital HD download, complete with a Pynchon-worthy absurd graphic showing Inherent Vice playing on a Smartphone. On the other hand, the cover ad artwork is miserable. Doc Sportello looks like a creep character from an old Cheech & Chong movie, which is all wrong.

The extras are limited to four short films. The first two are definitely trailers, or trailer cuts... I think. I'm glad I didn't see the first because it makes Inherent Vice look like a lame comedy farce. It doesn't take into account the dark vision about the world being sold out while some of us wasted our lives on the Venice Boardwalk. The last two cuts play like free-form meditations using film clips, perhaps done by Anderson himself. Many of the shots are of unused scenes or alternate takes. Their actual meaning & function are probably well known to everyone in the film-o-sphere save this particular reviewer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Inherent Vice Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent yet not for everyone
Video: Excellent
Sound: English, Spanish, French
Supplements: Trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 18, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

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