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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE version |
. "Inherent Vice"

The title of this roaming L.A. noir thriller where crime and sadness meets satire and farce seeks to suggest a prevailing social strain in the big city on the west coast. You know... the one with the rep for drug-saturation among the citizenry - especially as the free-wheeling sixties was fading away.

I was therefore surprised to learn that "inherent vice" is more than an obvious phrase pertinent to such a film about corruption and betrayal. Rather, it's a legal term indicating defects in something at issue, such as in faulty artwork, or in an insurance contract. But it well applies to Thomas Pynchon's book on which writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's ("There will Be Blood," "Boogie Nights") movie is based.

As for the movie, it's loaded with as many stunning (if not stoned) characters as the faults, not the least vice of which is the lack of narrative clarity to be found here. Still, the cast makes it a richly problematic look-back experience.

In typical noir fashion, it all starts in a beach city (in 1970, the year of the director's birth) with a PI lost in the haze of a substance... and a dame. As related by narrator Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), The dame here is the PI's rangy ex-girlfriend, flower-child Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) who gently breaks into PI Doc Sportello's (Joaquin Phoenix) weedy miasma to plead for his professional help.

Shasta's problem concerns her current boyfriend: opportunistic, amoral real estate billionaire Mickey Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) whose wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover, Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson), are about to throw Mickey into an institution for the mentally defective.

Confusing? If that doesn't make you dizzy, Doc's other case involves Mickey-man Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) who introduces the mob into the collage by leaning on Doc to find Glen Charlock, a Mickey bodyguard, who owes the mogul money.

Doc's investigation begins to go into its first spiral when Doc visits one of Mickey's construction sites and gets cold-cocked, only to awaken in a bare LAPD interview room to be grilled by his least favorite cop: military hairdoed Lt. Det. Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who is one malicious dude: sly, ethically challenged, and a complainer. "Even extra work is drying up," he kvetches.

What his violent "capture" of Doc is all about is to squeeze the PI for intel.

Phoenix, in mutton chops, is as confident in his portrayal of the PI as any part I've seen him in before -- partly due, I think, to the physical and mental range of the character he's called upon to portray, plus the confidence he may have derived from his recent movie successes. Phoenix plays the always-high detective with jollity and assuredness, and a pot instilled calm. He shuffles, he zones out, but he remains involved.

Much the same can be said for Eric Roberts whose acting tendencies are restrained within the limits of a colorful portrayal of the sad and corrupt L.A. real estate man everyone's been trying to get out of the way.

Owen Wilson steps in as government informer Coy Harlingen; Benicio Del Toro as Doc's lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq; Reese Witherspoon as very put-together Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball; Maya Rudolph as Petunia Leeway; Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S.; the unsettling stripper Belladonna as Clancy Charlock (as Michelle Sinclair) and a host of other outstanding dudes and dudesses.

My biggest regret after seeing this movie is that it didn't come with subtitles.

Which could have helped the viewer engage more in Anderson's attempt to adapt the book by including all his favorite episodes. Can we call it a crammed highlight reel with manic excess?

And yet, the movie is full of surprises, some of them hilarious, inventive, evocative and sexy (frontal nudity and a copulation scene included). Cinematographer Robert Elswit and others on the visual side have concocted a rich, pastel color-saturated atmospheric glow that lends the movie considerable fascination.

Reading the book before seeing the movie is recommended.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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The flower-child and the PI, dealing with her boyfriend's mess.
Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and Doc (Joaquin Phoenix).

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