The screening I attended for this was sparsely populated. I think a lot of people have watched the excruciating trailer and been uninspired. I was uninspired myself, but a major release of a throw-back detective film was too close to my interests to risk missing it if it were any good, so I went. As sparse as the theatre was when I arrived, it was basically just me left at the end – the first walk-out was about 30 minutes in, and that cascaded a bit so that my the full run-time of nearly 2.5 hours, it was just die-hards left. A litany of the film’s problems could form the basis of an amusing rant, but I think it’s the near-misses which are the most interesting things about this film because they shed light on the genre conventions of the hard-boiled detective genre which are rendered invisible by the perfectly executed genre piece.
Inherent Vice draws its hero from the slacker/stoner school. Faced with the problem of a missing boyfriend, with full accompaniment of crazily convoluted “plot”, our hero stumbles from one scene to another. Occasional bouts of perspicacity are overwhelmed by the general marijuana miasma, through which “Doc” Sportello drifts. It feels a world different from his hard-boiled predecessors, who survived on their razor wits. Spade and Marlowe are famous for their biting sarcastic wit – but that wit disguises the often-thin connective tissue between scenes. Marlowe, in particular, often found himself in novels reconstituted from unconnected short stories, and a close reading shows the seams very clearly, is even exacerbated in the films. The Big Sleep novel ends with the revelation that Carmen Sternwood murdered Rusty Regan, which was the real mystery at its centre – but if that’s revealed in the film version it’s buried pretty deep. By eschewing any real attempt to form coherent bridges between scenes, Inherent Vice points out the basically arbitrary nature of formula fiction.
The problem with the execution here is the “so what” factor. Why is that interesting? How does this change the way I would watch other detective fictions? Like Murder by Death and Clue, it recognises the inherent absurdity of the genre without being able to rehabilitate it.
I find a similar difficulty with the so-called femme fatale, Shasta. Beautiful, alluring, mercurial and dangerous. Shasta initiates the action of the film by engaging Doc’s services, to find the aforementioned missing boyfriend, who she thinks is being brainwashed into giving all his money away. But Shasta merely looks like Brigid O’Shaughnessy; she has none of the tricks that made Brigid the equal of any man in The Maltese Falcon . Crucially, she has no real stake in the game of detection. She’s little more than a bystander. Her presence is as a catalyst in the truest chemical terminology – she precipitates action without herself being affected. It appears that all of the women in the film are similarly irrelevant – red herrings at best. The hyper-masculinity of the detective genre is well attested, but by reducing the women from dangerous players in the game to mere playthings doesn’t seem to me to be helping the situation.
The chief defence of most detectives is their wit. While physically robust, mere physicality doesn’t solve problems for Hammett or Chandler, only for Spillane’s degenerate line. Wit, the ability to spot incongruities and make a joke of them, is closely allied to the ratiocination which the hard-boiled detective shared with his unboiled counterpart. The stoner character is essentially at odds with “smarts”, and while the film allows Sportello the odd well-placed jibe, it clearly feels the lack. Instead, it contrives for the narrative itself to point out the incongruities- the film quickly passes the 6 snigger test, if not outright laughter. But this quickly becomes part of the general disjunctive nature of the scenes – the tone varies wildly from scene to scene partially as a result of these humorous moments. Of course, life is a mix of emotions, but here the incongruities wear thin. In the screening I was in, there were laughs early, but at similarly-staged moments in the latter stages of the drama there was only a sullen silence. Punchlines without jokes.
All in all, I found Inherent Vice to be a weird and futile narrative that gestured at things I do enjoy and which have worked well in other vehicles. I’m not an especially big Coen brothers’ fan, but I think the kinds of things that are being tried here were already done pretty successfully in the far more entertaining Big Lebowski .