NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Mark, who says... “Inherent Vice” is meant to be experienced firsthand; the plot is secondary to the film and is hard to follow. The film’s humor and style is its driving point and is presented as a sort of pot-induced haze so it feels like a journey into someone’s state of mind. There are also a lot of references to the end of an era (the 1960s) that induct it as a period piece despite not having any effect on the storyline.
The movie opens on a rickety beach house; we are told it’s 1970 in Gordita Beach, a fictional town in Los Angeles. A young woman, Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), walks to this home; we are told she is the homeowner’s “ex-old lady” and “Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.” These are passages from Thomas Pynchon’s novel and this eloquent prose is inserted throughout the movie. Shasta’s ex-boyfriend is revealed as Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is both private investigator and hippie/dope head who always seems a bit dazed and confused. Shasta tells him about her new lover, Mickey Wolfmann, and asks Doc to help prevent a plot by Mickey’s wife and her lover to have Mickey abducted and committed to an insane asylum. He asks why she came to his place and she suspects she is being watched and by showing up at his home, it just looks like a secret rendezvous.
Wolfmann is a wealthy real estate developer that Doc remembers from TV ads. He watches one where, in his drug-state, Wolfmann appears as Doc’s archrival, the police officer, Bigfoot. Doc calls his Aunt Reet, who tells him that Wolfmann is technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi. He is associated with white supremacists and has a lot of ties to criminals.
We meet Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) who is serving as our narrator. She tells Doc to change his hair; we later see it with pieces of blue ribbon tied into it.
Doc meets with Kahlil Tariq, a member of a Black Panther-esque group, who hires Doc to help him find one of Mickey’s bodyguards, Glen Charlock, a white supremacist who he met in jail who owes him money. Kalil discusses the history of Los Angeles’ land Mexicans losing their homes so the Dodger Stadium can be built, American Indians being kicked out for the Music Center, his own neighborhood gone to build Channel View Estates (Wolfmann’s real estate). Doc writes on his pad with stoned out notes like “PARANOIA ALERT” and “HALLUCINATING.”
Doc visits Channel View Estates, followed by dozens of police officers that do a poor job at remaining hidden. Doc enters the home, which ends up being a brothel. Behind a door with a cartoon drawing of a naked woman, a prostitute named Jade emerges and tells about the $14.95 special on eating pussy. She demonstrates on her colleague, Bambi, while Doc searches the premises for Charlock but he is knocked on the head and collapses, theatrically.
He awakes in a police station where he is interrogated about the murder of Charlock and the disappearance of both Mickey Wolfmann and Shasta Fay. He mocks the FBI agents conducting the interrogation, each picking their nose at different intervals (the film has an over-the-top goofy tone). Doc is helped by an attorney, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) but he is not an actual criminal lawyer and is willing to help the police OR Doc indiscriminately. Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) of the LAPD enters and it’s clear that Doc and him have a love/hate relationship despite a deep respect for each other. A running joke is Bigfoot is always simulating oral sex on bananas or popsicles, which intrigues Doc in a nonjudgmental way. Bigfoot tries to get Doc to become an informant for the police but he does not want to.
Doc is also hired by Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), who is looking for her missing husband, Coy, a saxophone player. She tells Doc about her own drug problems and how drugs have ruined her teeth and made her breasts hairy (she shows Doc a photo in which he screams in reply). She tells him she’s now working as a drug counselor.
When he leaves the station, the secretary, Petunia (Maya Rudolph), tells him he has a message it is from Jade who apologizes for setting him up and tells him to be aware of the Golden Fang.
Jade meets Doc in an alley where she explains about the Golden Fang, a group that is smuggling drugs into the country. He then runs into Coy Harlingen, who is not dead at all. Coy is a saxophone player in a local surf band who is hiding undercover at a house on Topanga Canyon no one recognizes him because he plays bass with the band that resides there. Coy disappears in the fog and Doc struggles to find his way out (a metaphor but also shows the world from his drugged-out point of view).
Doc makes his way to the Wolfmann residence and meets his wife, Sloane, as well as her lover, the hunky yoga instructor, Riggs Warbling. The house is run on debauchery including a housekeeper who is openly willing to perform sexual favors for guests. Doc tours the house and finds a closet filled with ties, each with a naked woman drawn on them. Each woman is a live-in houseguest one of them is his own ex-girlfriend, Shasta, who has now gone missing.
Back at the police station, Doc expresses his distaste for the police and seems to be afraid of officers.
Doc meets with Deputy DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), who he also is having an affair with on the side. She asks him about Wolfmann and Sasha’s disappearances and the murder of Charlock. She suggests maybe Doc has killed him given that he is always so drug-induced, he passes out and doesn’t remember things; he has no defense against this hypothesis. She directs him to the FBI, who take him to an estate; among the guests is a man with a swastika on his face. Doc spots Coy Herlingen there; the two speak privately about the Golden Fang, which Coy reveals is the name of a secret organization with shady business. It is also the name of their boat which is used to smuggle heroin into the country.
Sauncho Smilax, the attorney, gives Doc more information on the Golden Fang, including the fact that it was stuck in the Bermuda Triangle for 50 years. Doc spots the boat in the ocean.
Doc is watching a Richard Nixon rally on TV; Coy Harlingen appears on the screen, protesting Hitler’s speech. When he talks to Coy about it, he learns that Coy dabbled in Communism years ago and that he is now a police informant. He explains that he fears for his life and now only wants to return to his wife and daughter.
At his home, Doc receives a postcard from Shasta that reminds him of an experience they had there with a Ouija board. Sortilège is there, helping them use the board, but they don’t seem to acknowledge her (flirting with the idea that she is a figment of Doc’s imagination). The board spells out a phone number and when Shasta and Doc call it, it leads them to the Howdy Doper office downtown. They visit it in person but it is closed; they wait outside the building, snuggling up in the cold.
Doc goes to the same building from his memory and waits in the office of a dentist, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. (Martin Short, who is scene-stealing). Rudy is hedonistic, constantly having sexual relations with his staff and snorting cocaine. He is later joined by Japonica Fenway, a young 18-year-old girl, who is the daughter of a rich man named Crocker Fenway. She drives the group home, despite them all being high on cocaine; they are pulled over by a police officer who explains her headlights are off; Japonica says she doesn’t need them because she can see in the dark. The officer continues, telling them that any group over three people may be indicative of a cult; a high Dr. Rudy worries that it’s Charles Manson again. The police officer lets them go, not realizing they are all obviously high on cocaine.
Bigfoot meets with Doc in a restaurant he tells him that Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd has just been found dead with a neck injury fang bites. Bigfoot also informs Doc that there may be a link between Puck Beaverton (another one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards) and Coy Harlingen. The two have a long conversation about how the city is changing for the worse Doc mentions extra work is drying up. Later, Doc watches television at home and sees Doc working as an extra on a police television series (in the vein of “Dragnet”).
Doc goes to a casino hours away to find Puck Beaverton. It is run by a sort of cult, including a man with a swastika on his face. Doc notices two FBI agents escorting Wolfmann through the premises; he manages to talk with him and learns that Wolfmann has given up on the state of the world and feels guilty for the negativity that his real-estate business has caused; he now is a happy member of the cult.
When Doc returns to Los Angeles, he is greeted by Shasta who has returned. She says she was up north but he points out the puka shells she are wearing are from the beach. She confesses to being on a three-hour tour (i.e., on the Golden Fang) and that she was brought along as inherent vice. She admits to not knowing what this means. We are told by Sortilège in voiceover that “inherent vice” is listed as an insurance policy as something that will inevitably be damaged like chocolate which will melt or glass which will break. In other words, a sort of defect in a product, which will lead to it being deteriorated; if the defect is not noticeable and nobody has been warned of it, neither the insurance company or the insured are liable for any claim.
Doc meets with Penny again who is willing to provide him with confidential files he reviews them and learns that Adrian Prussia, a loan shark, is paid by the police department to kill people for them one of their victims was Doc’s former partner. Prussia is tied to the Golden Fang and he learns that Glen Charlock was involved with a deal which is how he ended up dead.
At his place, Shasta and Doc engage in a conversation and when she emerges from another room, she is completely naked. Shasta says that Doc should pretend she is a Manson girl, easily duped and controlled by a man, all while rubbing her nipples. As their conversation continues, she rubs his leg, sexually, and then bends over the couch all in a long, six-minute unbroken shot. It concludes with them having sex.
Doc visits Adrian Prussia but is abducted and drugged by Puck Beaverton. He wakes up, handcuffed. He manages to escape, killing both Puck and Adrian. Bigfoot appears and rescues Doc but after driving him home, Doc learns that he has been set up and all the smuggled heroin from the Golden Fang has been planted in the trunk of his car.
Instead of incurring the wrath of the drug dealers, Doc hides the heroin in his house and arranges for the drugs to be returned to Crocker Fenway (Japonica’s father), in exchange for Coy’s freedom.
Sauncho and Doc go to the ocean and watch the Golden Fang becomes repossessed. Coy is finally reunited with his family.
At the end of the credits is the quote, “Under the paving-stones, the beach!”
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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“Inherent Vice” is a detective story about a hippie named Doc who is hired for various interconnecting cases all tied to a ship named the Golden Fang, which is smuggling heroin into the country. In the end, it is revealed that the LAPD is involved and directly tied to the murder Doc was trying to solve. The film’s storyline is hard to follow and its selling point is really the tone it inhabits a foggy, stoned version of Los Angeles in the early 1970s with a lot of fun, goofy humor throughout.
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