California, 1970. Beach hippy and private eye Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She has been seeing wealthy, married property developer Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and suspects that his wife is plotting to have him kidnapped and committed to an insane asylum. Despite Doc’s lingering feelings for her, Shasta wants him to investigate the case.
It turns out that the next two cases Doc is asked to take on both have a connection to Wolfmann. In fact it seems that everyone he stumbles across – from saxophonist Coy Harlington (Owen Wilson) to brothel worker Jade (Hong Chau) to bull-headed police detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) – is somehow tangled in the web of conspiracy. Cults, communists, street gangs, white supremacists, the FBI, an international heroin smuggling operation, politicians, pirates (possibly) and a syndicate of dentists are all involved. None of it really seems to make a lot of sense; but Doc, shambling from clue to clue in a dope-induced stupor, is quite used to that.
- What was your immediate response to the film? If you have seen any other films by Paul Thomas Anderson – including Boogie Nights or Magnolia – how did Inherent Vice compare? If you have read any of novelist Thomas Pynchon’s work, how successful was this as an adaptation?
- Why do you think Anderson chose to include the voiceover by Sortilége (Joanna Newson) in the script? What, if anything, did this add to the film? Can you think of any other notable uses of voiceover on film, and when does this device work best?
- What would you say are some of the genre influences behind Inherent Vice? How does it draw, for example, on noir and slapstick conventions? What, if anything, is unique or new about the film?
- How did you react to the character of Doc? To what extent is his love for Shasta the centre of the complicated story, and was this enough to keep you emotionally engaged? Does he have any other driving motives?
- How do you think we are supposed to respond to Shasta? To what extent does she seem to know who she is, or what she wants? Is she more of a character or a symbol – and what might she symbolise to Doc and to us?
‘Not knowing quite where the joke is doesn’t stop us from finding it funny, any more than confusion should preclude our wistful appreciation.’ – New Statesman
- Does this assessment chime with your experience of the film, and why or why not? Which parts of Inherent Vice – if any – did you find funny or moving? Did the film’s lack of clarity impede your enjoyment at all?
- What does Inherent Vice have to say about the specific time and place in which it is set? What were the dominant cultural factors in 1970s America, and how does the film reflect these? How do these factors – such as the hippy movement and the rise of corporations – continue to influence us today?
‘As long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers.’ – Sortilége
- What does drug use represent to different characters in the film, and how do drugs shape their world? Why do you think drug use played such a major part in 1960s and 70s subcultures? What might drug use appear to promise people, and what deeper personal or social issues might it mask?
- How concerned are Doc and Bigfoot about ‘doing the right thing’, and how do they each go about it? On what basis does Doc seem to make his moral choices? Does the film as a whole draw any conclusions about what it means, or what it costs, to do the right thing?
- What critique did the hippy movement make of mainstream culture, and are there any comparable movements today? What do such countercultural movements hope for, and what might be necessary in order for them to be successful? According to Inherent Vice, what lay behind the failure of the ‘hippy dream’?
‘“Under the paving stones, the beach!” Cleave up the concrete slabs of oppression and underneath you’ll discover glorious freedom. [. . .] By the end, Doc has lifted the paving stones and found more paving stones. And under those paving stones, an infinite layering of paving stones. Where is the beach? Did it even exist in the first place?’ – Little White Lies
- What does ‘the beach’ represent in this analogy, and in what different ways have humans attempted to reach it throughout history? Have these attempts succeeded, and if not, why? Do you think that ‘the beach’ truly exists, and why or why not?
- ‘Inherent vice’ is defined as ‘the tendency in physical objects to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components of which they are made, as opposed to deterioration caused by external forces.’ What might be the significance of the film’s title? Do the characters primarily seem to struggle because the system is broken, or because they themselves are inherently broken? What might be the ‘inherent vice’ in human nature?
‘So who around here handles resurrections?’ – Doc
- Is there any real hope available to the characters in Inherent Vice, and if so where does it come from? What kind of ‘resurrection’ might be necessary in order to break free from the oppressive cycles of history, or from our own personal failings?