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By Tom Glasson
March 16, 2015
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By Tom Glasson
March 16, 2015
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Every so often I find myself staring at my rug and thinking of Lebowski. Rugs really do tie a room together, and their absence can very easily render something like a living room nothing more than a collection of 'things' with no real connective tissue.

In The Big Lebowski, of course, Jeff Bridges was that rug: a slovenly yet cohesive force of White Russian-fuelled lethargy who kept an otherwise sprawling and surreal piece of cinema from descending into incoherent nonsense. Central characters are always important, yes, but in specifically psychedelic cinema where style is often in equal or greater measures than substance, a well-defined, well-performed protagonist can be the single determinative factor between success and failure.

Inherent Vice — the seventh film by Paul Thomas Anderson — is one such example. Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, it is confusing and bewildering cinema at its absolute best, guided through the haze courtesy of Anderson's deft hand and another exceptional performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix plays Larry 'Doc' Sportello, a perennially stoned private investigator in 1970 California who's hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to track down her missing lover (Eric Roberts). In principle it seems largely straightforward, but the set-up alone contains so many twists, double crosses and tawdry affairs that within five minutes of the opening titles there's a sense of being overwhelmed in a manner that doesn't improve over the remaining 147 minutes.

Though Doc shares your confusion, he never shows it. Instead, he cruises unflappably through every conversation and encounter, pausing only occasionally to jot down irrelevant one word notes in his flipbook. Imagine the Dude, only without the hobby or mantra to guide him: an underestimated sleuth combining the substance abuse of The Rum Diary's Paul Kemp with the quirky intuition of Columbo.

Surrounding him, the list of cameos is both enormous and divergent, contributing in no small way to the film's labyrinthine plot. There's the strait-laced assistant DA with a secret, Penny Kimble (Reese Witherspoon); the tell-all nurse's secretary, Penny Leeway (Maya Rudolph); the drug-addicted dentist Dr Rudy Blatnoyd (an entirely lecherous Martin Short); Doc's mysterious lawyer, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro); and Owen Wilson's Coy Harligen — a musician/heroin addict/missing person/cult spokesperson/political renegade. Even he doesn't quite know who he is.

Finally, there's Josh Brolin as Lt. Detective Christian F. 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen — a hard-nosed, hippie-hating cop sporting a Dragnet crew cut and a penchant for sucking down chocolate-covered bananas on a stick. He and Phoenix put in the film's best performances, and it's their shared scenes that boast the most engaging screen time.

"A hidden defect (or the very nature of a good or property) which of itself is the cause of (or contributes to) its deterioration, damage or wastage". That's the legal definition of 'Inherent Vice', and for Pynchon it represented the uncomfortable truth about America's decline. In the wake of the Charles Manson killings, the failings of the American Dream were to be found within the dream itself: corrupt, flawed and prey to the darker nature of man. That's what's at the core of this film (however difficult it might be locating it), and while it won't be to everyone's taste, Inherent Vice is an impressive piece of filmmaking that warrants your time and attention.

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