Inherent Vice is the mellowest trip into seedy criminal paranoia that you’re ever likely to slosh into. With his seventh film, and by far his most blithe, Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the era where the daze of the 1960s was just fading off the Californian coast—and “noir” (as understood by Nino Frank) became every American filmmaker’s passion. And make no mistake: Inherent Vice is one boozy, sun-kissed noir, albeit with a haze of dread that could simply be coming off the Acapulco gold’s fumes.
The fascination with this genre tends to look at an earlier era in the 20th century when post-war cynicism countered the good vibrations baby boom. Yet, when noir was first posthumously popularized, there was another American war in full swing, and cynicism walked hand-in-hand with the dope.
It is at this cultural moment that Thomas Pynchon set his source material novel, a free-spirited maze that’s just as concerned with its 1970 snapshot as it is with the labyrinthine plot. Inherent Vice wants to revisit to the zenith of anti-authoritarian dominance in American culture, but willfully gets sidetracked at the mere moments of its sunset. As Vice opens on its first drag, Charles Manson has already made “hippies” a dirty word, and now more than only the LAPD wants to beat down and marginalize the surfer dudes and beach bunnies that populate Gordita Beach. In short, Pynchon and Anderson lead us on a merry wake for a culture that doesn’t quite realize the party’s over.
It is in this context that Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello begins the movie. As a seaside smoker by trade and a private eye by happenstance, he’s perfectly content stumbling through cases and weed until his ex-flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) shows up at his door. Shasta was a fellow flowerchild too, once upon a time, but has now settled into being the upscale mistress of LA billionaire developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She insists to Doc that she’s in a bad spot, because Mickey’s wife and her own boy-toy are planning to send Mickey up north to the loony bin, and they want to cut Shasta in on the scheme. The two-piece fatale is not so much asking for Doc’s help, but his permission to do something less than morally forthright.
Of course, when Mickey mysteriously disappears a few days later, and Shasta seems to skip town, it leaves Doc in an awkward spot with the LAPD…especially after waking up next to the dead body of Mickey’s bodyguard. Add in Josh Brolin’s hippie-hating Lt. Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen wanting to climb on Doc’s back, and the stoned sleuth has a hell of a reason to start digging.
Anderson’s sprawling epic of corruption and lost summer is as dense as it is narratively impenetrable. Taking a page from Howard Hawks, Inherent Vice is so dizzying in its plotting and numerous alliances and betrayals hidden beneath the surface of hashish that it’s a fool’s errand to try to keep up. The true allure of the picture is the surprisingly folksy portrait of a certain type of American life that it paints with a lyrical affection.
This is likely somewhat indebted to the voiceover narration provided mostly from Pynchon’s prose and by a narrator that is quizzically not Phoenix’s appealingly mumbler brogue. Rather, Doc’s gal pal Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) navigates his adventures as if from a second-hand account, hinting at the pure playfulness of Anderson’s approach to the material, as the male detective is immediately subjugated in his own narrative.
And in that role, Phoenix shines with another tour de force that commands total attention, in spite of its deceptive lethargy. For their second collaboration, Anderson and Phoenix appear as giddy as any audience will be with this stumbling, slurring mealy mouth of brilliance. Indeed, it’s easy to mistake this gumshoe in flip-flops for the pothead the cops always take him for, particularly when his idea of note-taking during client interviews is simply to jot down his state of mind (usually paranoid). But this mutton chop-sporting private dick can still untangle a criminal web of drugs and FBI malfeasance that reassures his cynicism about a world that is swinging back to greed and authority.
He also has a surprising reservoir of empathy for all of the rotating cast of characters he runs into, not least of all being Waterston’s Shasta. While her motivations never fully emerge, her ability to win the audience as easily as Doc with the perfect pout or easygoing smile speaks volumes to his own driving needs.
The rest of the picture is also populated by a dozen great actors, who are doing superb one or two-scene spots as friends, foes, suspects, and boozing buddies. Reese Witherspoon plays the tightly wound Deputy DA who likes to slum where the weed is with sincere indifference, and Owen Wilson is having too much fun as Coy Harlingen, a saxophonist who’s supposed to be dead but keeps crossing unlikely paths with Doc further and further down the rabbit hole. Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, and Michael K. Williams all also get at least one moment to shine. But the real scene-stealer is probably Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a shady dentist who introduces himself and his cocaine to Doc in the same breath.
All do terrific work, so it’s a shame that none of them really get to stick around long enough to either fully sketch their characters or their roles in the plot. The one exception is Brolin’s Bigfoot, a latent closet case square who already hates himself for missing the ‘60s, despite coming from the same beach as Doc. Their rivalry is always antagonistic, but feels like a long foreplay to a bong-hit Bigfoot will never allow himself.
This ensemble and the sleazy world they inhabit is so colorful that it can be more or less excused that this is a crime film that is relatively uninterested in crime. There is real pain to be felt, but mostly in Doc’s longing for a life already lost with Shasta and for a contentedness that appears to be fleeting for no understandable reason. Doc ultimately completes the case more than he solves it, and at nearly two and a half hours, the real inherent vice here could be the very laidback pacing. The movie is also as frantic as any drug-fueled 1970s-set Anderson movie would be, but it’s simultaneously, and surprisingly, catching its breath between hits.
Still, with his stylish and clean aesthetic, Anderson is finding a gingerly beauty to the seedier side of life. Constantly submerged in the shadow of the Cielo Drive murders, Inherent Vice recalls an ugly moment where the sun finally sinks below the inviting Pacific. But as told in wide-shot by eccentric oddballs bouncing off each other, as well as whatever they might be on at any moment, Anderson’s latest is an intoxicating buzz about one hell of a generational hangover.
Inherent Vice premieres in theaters on Dec. 12.
***This review was first published on Oct. 4, 2014.