Interesting news last week in the Los Angeles Times, which reported that the Los Angeles apartment occupied by Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s great 1973 film The Long Goodbye is now available for rent. One bedroom, one bathroom, private parking, hardwood floors and a terrace, with access via a private elevator, it can be yours for around £1,790 a month. Serendipitously, Altman’s The Long Goodbye has been rattling round my head for a few weeks now, since I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Inherent Vice.
Adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel, Altman’s The Long Goodbye highlighted the difference between the hardboiled detective genre and California in the permissive Seventies. It’s the same location and decade that Anderson lovingly recreates for Inherent Vice: a crazy, out-of-whack principality where the funky hippie vibes of the previous decade have been replaced by Nixon, Manson, Vietnam, urban riots and assassinations. Anxiety and remorse are the principal emotions. There’s a sticky, faintly claustrophobic tone to the film, with its talk of “karmic thermals” and heroin addicts, midday naps and shapeless days. As one character says in voiceover, “American life was something to be escaped from.” Incidentally, Anderson’s film is based on a Thomas Pynchon novel, and the director battles (successfully, for the most part) to do justice to the author’s fizz of ideas and twisty, often exasperating subplots.
In the middle of all this is muttonchopped private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), sporting what look conspicuously like a succession of Neil Young’s cast offs from the Buffalo Springfield days. Sportello is a man of professional bravado but personal confusion: befuddled by weed, his love life is in freefall. After having sat through Phoenix shouting his way through Anderson’s previous film, The Master, it’s quite pleasant to watch him mumble his way through Inherent Vice. He reminds me a little of Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown, who did great stoned acting in the background of a scene, where he spent about five minutes trying unsuccessfully to recradle a telephone receiver. Here, Phoenix has the slow, disassociative reactions of the perpetually wasted.
Sportello is engaged by his ex girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who is having an affair with property developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts); Shasta and Mickey promptly disappear; meanwhile, in a separate storyline, Sportello is engaged to find a missing husband, played by Owen Wilson who admirably out-acts Phoenix in the stoned stakes. What follows includes neo-Nazis, a shadowy cabal of dentists, anti-Communist subversives, teenage runaways and many more splendid examples of the counter culture at its strung-out and goofiest. Around Phoenix, Anderson has assembled an excellent supporting cast: Benicio Del Toro, Reece Witherspoon and Martin Short. The best work is done by Josh Brolin, modeling a spectacularly officious flattop, as Sportello’s nemesis on the LAPD – and also Joanna Newsom, who is terrific as Sortilège, a wise-owl astrologer friend of Sportello and Shasta who also deliver the film’s voiceover. It’s gratifying to learn earlier today, by the way, that Newsom is at work on new material. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood, a regular Anderson collaborator, provides the film’s soundtrack: a beguiling mix of his own compositions (check out the loose, burbling rhythms of “Shasta Fey”) alongside Can and Neil Young.
Indeed, Young’s “Journey Through The Past” is critical to the film. Anderson uses it principally to soundtrack flashbacks of Sportello and Shasta in happier times. But it also serves to articulate a deeper subtext at work in Pynchon’s novel; the sadness of lost potential. Pynchon seems to suggest that “the ancient forces of greed and fear” at work in today’s world have their roots in California during the period the film is set in. It’s one of Pynchon’s many, wonderfully digressive thoughts; using the cultural detritus generated by the era to consider bigger things. “Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters,” says Del Toro’s character, a marine lawyer, as he explains the legal term that gave both the book and film its title. Namely: everything falls apart, even the times in which we live.
Inherent Vice opens in the UK on January 30