Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
A few years ago, while having lunch with Rick McArthur, I jokingly asked how I could get one of those McArthur Fellow genius awards. He drolly replied I had to be a genius.
I guess National Book Award-winning author Thomas Pynchon is a genius because he won a McArthur grant in 1988. Of course, by then he’d written “V,” “The Crying of Lot 49,” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
Pynchon didn’t get around to writing “Inherent Vice” until 2009. Not as serious as his earlier novels, it was described by The New York Times as “a simple shaggy-dog detective story.”
“Inherent Vice” is playing at the Tropic Cinema.
The title comes from a legal term for a product with a hidden defect in it. Maybe that describes the protagonist of the story, a doper detective called Larry “Doc” Sportello. He sure has a lot of defects, some not so hidden. A shaggy-haired Joaquin Phoenix inhabits the role like wearing a wrinkled suit.
Pynchon is known for his dense and complex novels. “Inherent Vice” fills that bill. It’s the tale about the likeable pothead private eye being hired to help thwart a plot to bilk a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann out of his money by locking him away in a mental institution.
Most of the characters in this movie are certifiable enough to be locked away, but things get out of hand when Mickey Wolfmann (played by Eric Roberts) disappears.
Doc sets off on a picaresque journey to find him. In the process he encounters a black militant (Michael K. Williams), a white supremacist (Christopher Allen Nelson), a double-dealing prostitute (Hong Chau), his own sleazy lawyer (Benicio del Toro), a suspicious dentist (Martin Short), a dangerous hitman (Peter McRobbie), a guy with a swastika tattooed on his face (Kieth Jardine), a pretty assistant DA (Reese Witherspoon), and a pushy policeman known as “Bigfoot” (Josh Brolin).
Also our boy Doc gets hired by a woman to find her supposedly dead husband (Owen Wilson), comes across a drug-smuggling operation known as the Golden Fang, and reunites with his old girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) who has been Mickey Wolfmann’s mistress.
Didn’t I tell you Pynchon’s stories were complex?
Many moviegoers are finding this meandering, hippie-dippy storyline frustrating. But it is true to Pynchon’s tone.
Turns out, Doc’s old girlfriend is the “inherent vice” in the story. But that’s not really an important point.
Although Thomas Pynchon is renown for his reclusiveness (there are few existent photographs of him), it was rumored he was on the movie set “but that nobody knew it was him as he stayed in the corner.” Some claim he made a cameo appearance in the movie, but his name is not listed in the credits.
I looked for him throughout the film, but it was like trying to find Waldo without the red-striped shirt and toboggan. Hmm, maybe Rick McArthur was right not to give me one of those grants.