Some parts Chinatown, Easy Rider, The Long Goodbye, but wholly Paul Thomas Anderson, the director’s latest film, Inherent Vice is about as freely defined as one of the marijuana clouds we see floating in the Los Angeles air in this 1970s stoner noir. Adapted from a 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, the film loosely forms around a tried-and-true detective drama, but as the clues, plot threads, and eccentrically named characters pile up, the movie expands into some broader through lines; one of which being a lament for a time when America was less paranoid, less corrupt, and altogether less “square.”
Rejoining Anderson after their 2012 film The Master, Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a shaggy, mutton-chopped private eye who seems content to make his way on small-time cases and favors so long as he doesn’t have to venture far from his Gordita Beach shack into a Los Angeles that is economically, socially, and politically changing before his eyes. Less a hard-boiled detective than a half-baked one, you can’t even call Doc a true gumshoe considering he mostly roams the streets and around his office barefoot, helping himself to the laughing gas left behind when it was a doctor’s office. But he does have a heart, and when an old flame, Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), comes to him for help on a case—a conspiracy more than anything material at this point—he cannot help but oblige. However, he soon finds himself writing phrases in his notebook such as “Paranoia alert,” “Not hallucinating,” and “Guilt trip.” The case centers on Shasta’s new man, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), his wife (Serena Scott Thomas), and her boyfriend in an attempt to get Mickey institutionalized. It also involves a mysterious heroin ring, white supremacists allying with a Black Panther-like group, a saxophonist-turned-government-informant (Owen Wilson), and a number of supporting but no less intriguing characters with names like Japonica Fenway and Puck Beaverton. Got all that?
It’s the kind of mystery that makes sense in your head until someone asks you to explain it. It all fits, and yet it doesn’t. Any astute focus on the details of the case soon dissipates to the happenings of ancillary characters and the overall feng shui of the film. Often times you’ll notice a clue, and although you know it’s important, you’re not exactly sure how. At one point Doc is told an important name in the case, but all he writes is “Something Spanish” in his notebook. The meandering sequence of events seem to make as little sense to Doc as they do to us, which is why the film’s narrator, Doc’s friend Sortilège (played by Joanna Newsome), definitely makes things more accessible. I’m not entirely sure if Sortilège really exists. Doc doesn’t seem sure either.
There are moments when the plot comes to a screeching halt in favor of some darkly hilarious asides. The most memorable being a run-in with coked-up dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (a magnificently loopy Martin Short). It should be said that Inherent Vice is likely Anderson’s funniest film since Boogie Nights, sustaining a quirky sort of comedic energy as we root for these characters, even when they continue to go about their self-destructive behavior. Every character wrestles with personal demons, irreparably so, but Anderson is not patronizing here. Instead he places them into a world so disillusioned—yet so real—that the damage these characters do to themselves, and others, affects on a macro level rather than a personal one. It feeds into this feeling of indefinable loss—the what-ifs, the should-haves, the wish-I-would-haves—that permeate throughout. Perhaps that is what Anderson means (he also has screenwriting credit) when Sortilège talks about “little kid blues.”
And then there is Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by a clean-cut, square-jawed Josh Brolin. With “the evil little twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violation,’” he is the complete antithesis of Doc, but they begrudgingly work together on the case, epitomizing the old versus new, establishment versus anti-establishment, right-wing versus left-wing polarization we know so well. But their relationship eases more towards a détente, and by the end of the film, there is a kindred sense of admiration between the two. Doc just can’t come to hate the kind of guy whom we often see eating a chocolate covered banana. I’ll let you unpack that one.
With so many plot threads and characters floating around, Anderson and longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit ground us in a tangibly familiar place and time. The film has the graininess of 1970s pulp, and Anderson is content to let the actors fill the screen. The tracking shots are subtler. The long takes are less conspicuous, but the moments are just as memorable, especially in a milieu rich with a sort of fatalistic beauty. This is the kind of movie that reminds me of one of Roger Ebert’s more memorable quotes; “It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” You dig?