Incoherent ‘Vice’

Do you like things clear and simple, straight-forward and linear? Do you like your friends straight-talking and as blunt as  a cafeteria knife? Then steer clear of “Inherent Vice.”  The movie follows the luridly funny adventures of a pothead investigator who meanders through an investigation.

Just understanding the title may take some intellectual exercise you might not be willing to entangle. Inherent vice is, apparently, a common term in insurance and business. The definition is “an exclusion found in most property insurance policies eliminating coverage for loss caused by a quality in the property that causes it to damage or destroy itself.”

According to, inherent vice is 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. Such characteristics or defects make the item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice.”

Yet this movie isn’t about insurance and business. Think Vice spiced with sexual humor and the kind of narrative you get from a person telling a funny story that gets lost on the way to the punch lines but amuses none the less.

Taking place in the Los Angeles of the 1970s, long before I came to live here, the story follows Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix with mutton chop sideburns), a private investigator who does mind a drink or a puff of pot on the job and one wonders when he’s ever been sober or if the buzz is the only thing that gets him through the day.

At the time, Los Angeles was under a lot of smog and post-Manson Family hysteria. Hippies weren’t necessarily seen as peaceniks or lazy bums. They might be drug-crazed mass murderers just waiting for the right victims.

According to Doc’s current girlfriend Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), the story begins with a former girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), visiting Doc. She’s having an affair with the local real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who is making sleazy commercials. This isn’t a love triangle, but a polygon. According to Shasta, Mickey’s wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover, Riggs (Andrew Simpson), plan to have Mickey institutionalized.

Soon after one of Mickey’s bodyguards, Tariq (Michael Kenneth Williams), asks Doc to find Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson) who owes him money from their time in prison.

As part of his investigation, Doc visits a development that seems to be a front for prostitution. You’ll have no doubt when you see one of the interior doors. Besides meeting two gorgeous babes, Doc gets knocked unconscious and wakes up beside a dead Glen and under the waiting gun of his  nemesis Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Bigfoot isn’t a fan of private investigators nor potheads.

Doc meanders through this murder investigation that involves the feds and a Golden Fang, a visit to Las Vegas and the Coast Guard. Yet more than the mystery behind the murder, this movie is about the journey through the lurid and the lusciously ludicrous sight gags that are more sly than slapstick.

Go with a clear mind and expect to get cloudified in this mystery seriously steeped in the mellow marijuana smoke mixed with the haze of Los Angeles smog. Sex, money and murder. Go with a muddled mind and lie low in your seat and let your mind wander. Either way, you might need to see it more than once; the plots as complicated as a Poirot mystery but the people less well mannered.  And yet this isn’t a whodunit, but how to do it with ganja, a film 420 noir.

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