Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is narcotic noir set in 1970 Los Angeles, which, by coincidence (?), are the year and place of Anderson’s birth. The film distils its source material—Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name—down to its cinematic essences while retaining much of its manic detouring and labyrinthine plot, which gets sufficiently knotty so as to render our comprehension to roughly the same level as that of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the film’s sandal-clad, frizzy-haired, perma-stoned shamus, a gumshoe with a compulsion for following a cryptic lead and a weakness for high-grade weed. Inherent Vice isn’t impossible to follow, it’s just gloriously over-complicated, laden with conspiracy (Pynchon’s favoured narrative device), and gushing ephemera. The times are a-changed, a-changing, a-curdling. Inherent Vice is a mystery, a comedy, a sprawling cultural study, and, in the best sense, a very American film, shaggy and baroque, beautiful and off-balance, spastic, slapstick and mottled with melancholy.
It starts with Doc receiving a furnace blast from his past in the shape of Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s been carrying on with a married real estate developer (Eric Roberts) who’s gone missing. She wants Doc’s help, but by the time she drives away from his seaside bungalow there’s already the sense that Doc’s job detail in this is going to be more than that of a skip tracer. He’s about to be plunged into a web of cunnilingual massage parlours, seafaring gangsters, errant musicians, Republican activists, dentists on the verge of a nervous breakdown, black panthers and white supremacists. He has allies, such as his nautical lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) and Deputy DA lover (Reese Witherspoon), and a charming, perhaps chimerical figure (singer-harpist Joanna Newsom) with whom he can theorize and who narrates Inherent Vice with protracted quotes straight out of Pynchon’s lyrically addled text. Doc also has an oddly antagonistic camaraderie with Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a flat-topped conservative and so-called “renaissance cop” who likes to kick the shit out of Doc when not fellating chocolate-covered bananas with cryptic fauxmoerotic menace.
The obvious cinematic precedents for Inherent Vice are Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). In the former Elliot Gould is a product of the ’50s plunked down into the radically shifting ’70s; in the latter Jeff Bridges is a pot-blitzed product of the ’70s playing the bowling detective in Bush’s ’90s. What Inherent Vice shares with these films is a playful engagement with crime fiction tropes; the incorporation of drugs, coke and weed especially, into the paranoid fabric of its narrative strategies; and a deep interest in the physical and psychic topographies of Los Angeles. There is however an enormous distinction: unlike Marlowe or the Dude, Doc is very much a man of his milieu, “out of time” only in the sense that days are numbered for this idealistic New Age he emblematizes, with flower powered dreams going up in smoke as the Manson Family go on trial, Cambodia gets pummelled, hippies take up arms, and the city of angels is getting lorded over by land grabbers. Dutifully following Pynchon’s lead, Anderson mines So-Cal ’70 culture clashes for comic gold, but he’s also tracking the shift from Endless Summer to endless bummer with reverence, a recognition of something flawed but precious dissolving into a fog of increasingly dangerous drugs, reactionary authorities, corporate resilience and, perhaps, some weirder, older evil that gave birth to Hollywood and its Babylonian double.
The film’s incorporation of music speaks to Anderson’s respect for hippie dreams, alternating between the excellently uneasy Johnny Greenwood score and inspired choices of more or less contemporaneous records: the brilliant deployment of Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ to set the suspicious tone when our femme fatale first pulls away from the curb; the by-then ancient-sounding strains of Sam Cooke on a car radio; or the creaky odes of Neil Young (‘Harvest,’ ‘Journey Through the Past’) to buoy Doc’s nostalgic recollections of idyllic times with Shasta—a meta-theme subtly emphasized by Doc’s very Neil Youngish sense of personal style, the mutton chops and army surplus jacket. The cast uniformly succeeds at the daunting task of ushering Pynchon’s character-constructs into people with pasts: Brolin is a cartoon monster with a tender heart, while Phoenix is prowling the peripheries of lucidity, registering unease and disbelief with every exaggerated blink, as captivating here as he was in The Master, though Doc isn’t nearly as lost as Freddie Quell. The final moments of Inherent Vice could almost appear to restore order, except by now that we know better than to trust appearances and we regard order as some pacifying patina projected by the Man. Best to just keep driving into the sun. And to see Inherent Vice again as soon as possible—you might have missed a whole rabbit hole somewhere in the engrossing blur.