Doc may not be a "Do-Gooder" but he's done good

Doc may not be a “Do-Gooder” but he’s done good

In the late going of INHERENT VICE, we are taught the meaning of the title. It’s a reference to goods that can be damaged in transit just because of their nature. Glass breaks, chocolate melts,…that sort of thing. In that category, I offer that you could qualify “convoluted plot doesn’t add up”. It’s just the way of things when you’re wandering through the woods behind an antihero.

Sometimes, you’re just gonna get lost.

INHERENT VICE drops us into the life of Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). One night, Doc is visited by his “ex old lady”, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She is hoping Doc might be a good guy and help her find someone who’s gone missing  – her current fella, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Seems as though Mickey’s wife and her boyfriend were up to something dubious, and it’s resulted in the old man going missing. Shasta implores Doc to help her because…well…because she pretty much knows he will.

After being led astray by a mysterious bombshell named Xandra, Doc’s search for the real estate mogul nudges him towards a crooked cop named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). Bigfoot finds Doc near the body of one of Mickey’s bodyguards. Bigfoot knows Doc well enough not to really suspect him of anything, but that doesn’t stop him from questioning him anyway. He doesn’t get very far before Doc’s lawyer shows up, a maritime barrister named Sauncho (Benicio del Toro).

Before he can follow-up on what limited information he’s able to get regarding Mickey, Doc is approached yet again by a female friend, this time Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone). She is hoping that Doc can track down her husband Coy (Owen Wilson). Doc is able to find Coy without too much effort, but fails to convince him to go home. However, Coy does offer up some information that Mickey’s disappearance might have something to do with a syndicate called The Golden Fang.

Coy doesn’t have much more to go on than that, but for a detective of Doc’s calibre, that should be enough. If it’s not, he can always approach his friend-with-benefits Penny (Reese Witherspoon) who works with the LAPD. However, all she seems to be able to do is take information from Doc to use in her own casework. For the rest, she points him towards the FBI…who aren’t of much help.

Did you get all that? Good. There will be a quiz later.

 

Joaquin Phoenix and Joanna Newsom

 

Front and centre in INHERENT VICE is Joaquin Phoenix in all of his spastic glory. The film allows him to have more fun on-screen than he has had in years. Come to think of it, it might be the most fun Phoneix has ever had on-screen. What’s especially impressive about that is the way it requires Phoenix to see-saw back and forth between being the clown in certain scenes, and the straight man in others. You’d think that sort of duality would have an actor missing the mark on one or the other, but Phoenix always seems to step on to his mark perfectly…whether it’s screaming at a frightening snapshot, or keeping a straight face as Martin Short runs around an office in tighty whities. Not every player be a starter and provide quality minutes off-the-bench. In this film, Phoenix does both with aplomb.

Whether the film has Phoenix playing the straight man, or has Phoenix trying to play the straight man, he nails it every time and lands many of the funniest moments of the film.

This is no easy task since Phoenix is often playing opposite eccentrics like Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, and the aforementioned Short. All of them are men of their time – times that are, admittedly, pretty fuckin’ weird. The city of Los Angeles has become a constellation unto itself and that constellation has some pretty crazy celestial bodies. Oddly enough, a lot of those bodies think they’re burning brighter than they are. So to that end, we get del Toro, toning down his Dr. Gonzo act and swirl conspiracy theories about The Golden Fang. It’s almost absurd that he can act as legal counsel whose specialty is maritime law to be a part of Doc’s inner circle. Almost. In this world it’s par for the course. The same delusion of grandeur applies to Josh Brolin as Bigfoot. He always needs to rattle his marks at about a seven, but Bigfoot does so at ten anyway. Why does he kick in unlocked glass doors or felate popsicles? Only Bigfoot knows.

Of course, what would any neo-noir be without a femme fatale or three? While one of the flaws of the film is that none of its actresses truly stand out in this sausage party, they all nevertheless find ways to pull Doc in all sorts of different directions…and almost to a dame seem to be playing him for some reason or another. None of them have their hands in Doc’s pocket, interestingly enough, but from Xandra, to Penny, to Shasta – every woman Doc encounters seems to have her own agenda. What’s interesting is that none of them seem to need to come on to Doc all that intensely. Seldom has the world of Noir seen an easier patsy.

The funny thing about INHERENT VICE is the way the story doesn’t “make sense” at first blush.  There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, many of which we only get to handle for a moment or two. A good chunk of that can be chalked up to the way Doc doesn’t solve the case either, so much as he manages to stumble on to his answers. If he can’t keep a handle on what’s going on, how should we expect to?

In the end, what INHERENT VICE reminds me of most is ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Recently, I picked the two Lewis Carroll books up again for the first time in decades. In re-reading them as an adult, I was struck with how little they are a plotted narrative, and more a collection of disjointed and peculiar scenes. It’s less about what happens to Alice than it is letting her bear witness to absurdity. So it is with Doc. There is a trail of breadcrumbs (to mix my metaphors) that Doc is following in INHERENT VICE – like Jeff Lebowski or Phillip Marlowe before him. And just like those two iconic characters and the trails they follow, the film doesn’t want us to invest too deeply in where they lead, than it does who and what Doc sees while walking the trail.

And y’know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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