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Culture 'Inherent Vice,' a 70s-era detective tale, is full of virtues

‘Inherent Vice,’ a 70s-era detective tale, is full of virtues

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay Hepworth in “Inherent Vice.” CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Ann Hornaday (c) 2015, The Washington Post. “What’s up, Doc?”

That’s just one of a few running gags that keep afloat the cockamamie, kaleidoscopic, languidly compelling whodunit of “Inherent Vice.” The Doc in question isn’t a wascally wabbit, but Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private eye living in the seedy environs of Gordita Beach, California, in 1970.

Like his animated counterpart, this Doc (played in a hirsute, thoughtfully spaced-out turn by Joaquin Phoenix) gets out of his share of scrapes in a tale whose characters, structure and tone — a balance between mournfulness and inspired mayhem — often feels as if it was crafted by Raymond Chandler while under contract at Loony Tunes.

Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon — long considered un-adaptable by even Hollywood’s most resourceful re-purposing machinery — “Inherent Vice” roils and simmers with epochal shifts, spiritual cataclysms and eerily prescient observations of present-day realities, from long-brewing mistrust of the police to a burgeoning security state. But as a viewing experience, it’s a remarkably mellow, even soothing experience.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who has made a career of capturing Los Angeles from every angle, era and collective mood swing, “Inherent Vice” unfolds so organically, so gracefully and with such humanistic grace notes, that even at its most preposterous, viewers find themselves nodding along, sharing the buzz the filmmaker has so skillfully created. Even if you don’t normally partake of this manner of cinematic controlled substance — the raunchy sight gags, steady flow of joints and the occasional line of cocaine, the scenes that have a tendency to resolve into tawdry soft-porn cliches — you may find yourself quite enjoying its sun-kissed but also sharply observant contact high.

So what’s it about, you ask? On its surface, “Inherent Vice” follows the dictates of the film noir classics, from “The Big Sleep” and “The Long Goodbye” to “The Big Lebowski,” whose protagonist The Dude now looks like Doc Sportello’s aspirant younger brother.

As “Inherent Vice” opens, Doc is visited by the requisite femme fatale — in this case his “ex-old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a lissome beach babe whose Hollywood ambitions have sidetracked her into being the kept woman of a billionaire real estate developer. She needs Doc’s help on a case that will see him crossing paths, in no particular order, with Los Angeles’s most rapacious business interests, a proudly civil rights-abusing police lieutenant, the Aryan Brotherhood, an attorney with expertise in marine law, a coke-snorting dentist, a gaggle of curvaceous, hyper-sexualized women and a sax player for a surf rock band who may or may not have faked his own death and taken up residence in Topanga Canyon.

Fans — or merely interested onlookers — of Pynchon’s work know that it’s famously gnarly, dense and word-happy to an ecstatic extent. Anderson has tamed all of that into an impressively legible narrative, whose dog-legs and digressions wind up making just enough sense that the audience won’t miss the much more important bigger picture.

The woozily wacky superficial hunt that animates “Inherent Vice” is merely the scaffolding on which Pynchon and Anderson explore what really interests them. That’s the interregnum between the idealism of the 1960s and the crass commercialism of the ensuing decades; how anti-materialist ideals and activist politics were subverted and co-opted by the cynical forces of social control and profit-driven enterprise; and, finally, the collision of two paranoid cultures. One is the order-obsessed, cult-wary law enforcement apparatus, and the other is the lumpen-bohemian “hippie scum” whose Golden Age of Woodstock was fast giving way to the venality of Altamont.

Anderson’s last movie, “The Master,” was an enigmatic character piece, largely a two-hander dominated by Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here, the filmmaker goes back to his “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” roots as casting director extraordinaire, enlisting the best faces in the business to give warmth, humor and pathos to characters whose antic contradictions and off-the-wall pronouncements are nearly always suffused with unmistakable, if unspoken, sorrow.

Waterston delivers an impressive breakout performance as the willowy Shasta, whose pull on Doc is palpable (especially in a bravura erotic set piece late in the film). Josh Brolin steals every scene he’s in as the square-jawed, straight-arrow Lt. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, whose dismay at the downward spiral of American values is almost equal to his horror that part-time acting work on shows like “Adam-12” has dried up. Benicio Del Toro may have a relatively small part as Doc’s attorney, Sauncho Smilax, but he makes the most of every moment, admirably keeping a straight face at every bent, bizarre-o turn.

Really, there are no small parts in “Inherent Vice,” which co-stars the likes of Eric Roberts, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, an amusingly be-wigged Maya Rudolph and Martin Short in one of several of the film’s hilariously outrageous sequences. Hilarious, but not without tenderness: While Doc and his fellow travelers toke and toot up, Anderson makes sure to remind the audience that, just off-screen, there are people being oppressed, whether they’re residents of a black neighborhood being razed by developers, mentally ill patients being de-institutionalized by the Nixon and Reagan administrations or those pulchritudinous women who are routinely exploited, objectified and victimized by the men running any number of shows. (This somber subtext is reinforced by Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous acoustic score, which juxtaposes perfectly with songs by the Association and Neil Young that make up a carefully curated soundtrack.)

At times, it’s difficult to discern between the cruel gender politics “Inherent Vice” is critiquing and that the movie itself is engaging in. But it surely counts that the lone voice of wisdom belongs not to Doc but his friend and the film’s narrator, Sortilège, played by the cotton-voiced Joanna Newsom. It’s “Lège” who winds up being the moral center of “Inherent Vice,” and who spurs Doc — part shamus, part shaman, part shambolic mess — along on his stoned, sad-eyed travels.

And it’s her voice in his head, one senses, that inspires him to perform the film’s climactic act of twisty comeuppance and simple kindness. Turnabout’s fair play in “Inherent Vice,” which is another way of saying that karma may not always be a beach, but it can sometimes be found there.

Four stars. Rated R. Contains pervasive drug use, sexual content, graphic nudity, profanity and some violence. 148 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

Katherine Waterston takes your lame questions about ‘Inherent Vice’ sex scene

By Stephanie Merry (c) 2015, The Washington Post. Will you prudes please stop asking Katherine Waterston about that sex scene in “Inherent Vice”? She’s taking it all in stride, like she’s been doing the press circuit for ages — but given that this movie is her big break, isn’t there anything else you’d like to know?

Waterston, daughter of District Attorney Jack McCoy (OK, Sam Waterston), officially becomes an actress-to-watch this week when Paul Thomas Anderson’s wacky new movie gets a theatrical release. The 34-year-old had bit parts in under-the-radar movies over the last decade, but nothing like this. In “Inherent Vice,” she plays Shasta Fay Hepworth, the ex-girlfriend of reefer-loving private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) in 1970s Los Angeles, and her sudden appearance at the start of the movie sets in motion the meandering, convoluted mystery that follows.

Waterston is a talented actress, and her Shasta manages to be both provocative and desolate. Of her many scenes, the most memorable finds her nakedly monologuing, before getting violently spanked and taking a roll in the hay with Doc. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday called the scene “a bravura erotic set piece.” But Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty wrote: “It’s gratuitous and out of place and makes the movie skid to a WTF halt.”

Was it titillating or disturbing? Hard to say. But what was it like to film something like that?

Waterston has been asked so many times she clearly knows it’s coming, and she’s ready.

“I feel that nudity is sort of what we do as actors,” she told the New York Daily News. “But it didn’t feel any more vulnerable or complicated than any other complicated, vulnerable scene I’ve played.”

“In terms of nudity, it’s really not that big of a deal,” she told Huffington Post. “I felt a responsibility to Shasta who was, of course, very comfortable with Doc. I felt a responsibility to be comfortable in this situation.”

“I don’t have shame with my body,” she told W Magazine. “I don’t find a breast more vulnerable than an elbow.”

“I wasn’t freaked out about the nudity,” she told Cineplex.com. “I felt like a very strong responsibility to get Shasta right. She was not afraid, so I was not afraid. It kind of works like that, it’s the luxury of playing a part when someone’s competent, you get to take on the energy of the character and you don’t have to worry about your own neurotic self for a little while, it’s a nice vacation.”

And to HitFix: “On a personal level, I felt, you know, like I was working on a great project with people I respected and felt safe with, so it wasn’t really a big deal honestly.”

So there you have it. Feel a little silly now for asking?

Waterston’s turn in the film arose from a bit of happenstance. Anderson stumbled upon “The Babysitters” one night (we’re guessing on Cinemax) and admired Waterston’s performance as an industrious teenager whose babysitting gig is just a front for a prostitution ring. The 2007 movie grossed less than $45,000 and Waterston joked that Anderson “may have been one of two people who saw it,” during an interview with the New York Times. But saw it he did, so the auteur reached out to Waterston through his casting agent.

Following a cold read and without having cracked the book, Waterston secured the part. Apparently, casting agents and directors have been impressed by more than Waterston’s ability to bare it all. She’s been cast in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” as the innovator’s ex, Chrisann Brennan.

That just leaves one more question. Back to the nudity: Has her dad seen the sex scene?

“It really was no big whoop,” he told the New York Times, calling it a brave move on his daughter’s part. Clearly, the ability to handle awkward questions runs in the family.

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