With Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R For drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence. 148 mins.
“Does it ever end, he wondered. Of course it does. It did.” –Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice.
There’s a lot swirling around in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s hilarious, freewheeling adaptation of the allegedly un-adaptable Pynchon’s 2009 psychedelic noir INHERENT VICE—maybe too much to absorb in a single viewing. But endings are important here, and the key to best appreciating this stubbornly singular entertainment is to view these characters as the last men on the field, still playing a game they’re achingly slow to learn is already over.
It’s 1970 on California’s sunny, fictional Gordita Beach, where the Summer of Love has since curdled into a post-Altamont, Manson-panicked nest of bad vibes. Pothead private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is aroused from his regular evening stupor by the unexpected arrival of his “ex-old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Kathleen Waterston). She comes bearing bad news—ominous hints about a cockamamie scheme in the works to kidnap and defraud her new sugar daddy, notorious real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann. (“He’s technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi,” we’re helpfully informed.)
Involving a jealous wife, land grabs, black radicals and the Aryan Brotherhood, this is exactly the kind of case that go-along, get-along Doc shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. But our lovelorn detective never did quite get over Shasta, and so the affable stoner finds himself ambling around the underworld, pulling on random threads until a massive, byzantine conspiracy unravels faster than Doc’s dope-addled brain (and his “city dump of a memory”) can possibly process all the revelations.
The plot against Mickey Wolfmann mushrooms ever outward to include a sad-eyed saxophone player (Owen Wilson) on the lam after working as an undercover agitator infiltrating subversive grass-roots organizations, nose-picking FBI agents bearing the Book of Mormon and even a sinister consortium of depraved, heroin-smuggling dentists calling themselves The Golden Fang.
Narrated by Doc’s sprightly assistant Sortilege (Joanna Newsom)–who, after seeing the film three times now I’m still not sure isn’t just a figment of his imagination–”Inherent Vice” drifts in a delirious haze, positioning Phoenix’s groovy P.I. in a series of duets with a dazzling array of Special Guest Stars spinning patented Pynchon wordplay.
We’ve seen films about zonked protagonists before, but in the case of “Inherent Vice,” it’s the movie itself that feels stoned. Phoenix tends to hang half-a-beat behind his co-stars, while Anderson eschews the swaggering filmmaking flourishes that made his reputation in favor of impeccably blocked static shots and long, lingering close-ups. (Most of the sight gags are simple edits quite belatedly revealing these characters’ relationship to their surroundings.)
Period pop songs flare up for a moment or two on the soundtrack and then snake their way through subsequent scenes at a lower volume before imperceptibly fading into silence. Everything here is ephemeral—emotional beats and plot points slipping in and out of focus — thematically matching a tale in which resolutions remain tantalizingly out of reach.
Though still secretly pining for Shasta, Sportello’s got a little thing going downtown with an uptight Deputy District Attorney (Reese Witherspoon) who likes to get freaky with dirty hippies. When he registers surprise at the casual corruption around her office, she shuts down their “Walk The Line” reunion with a classically Witherspoon-onian snarl: “Grow up.”
Breaking with the tradition of cynical, insouciant detectives from Sam Spade to The Dude, Doc’s a genuine innocent, regarding this fallen world with disappointment and more than a little confusion—like when he flashes a peace sign to a Girl Scout who responds with an upraised middle finger. No way our floppy Phoenix seems capable of handling “dead dentists on trampolines,” or even worse, the sexually charged head-games being played here by his ex-old lady.
But Doc’s got an unlikely ally in LAPD Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played with bullet-headed brio by Josh Brolin in the performance of his career. Wearing a skinny tie and a “flat-top of Flintstone proportions,” Bigfoot bulldozes his way through scenes, his features balled-up like a fist. A sadist with a penchant for civil rights violations and fellating chocolate-covered frozen bananas, he’s the frustrated face of the Silent Majority, longing for a career in showbiz while taking out his aggressions on Sportello, his favorite punching bag.
The relationship between Doc and Bigfoot lends a surprising amount of soul to these madcap proceedings, with the latter emerging as something of a tragic figure. Unlike his hippy-dippy secret sharer, Bjornsen bought into the Straight World’s bill of goods and discovered all his hard work and loyalty don’t mean a thing to the crooked powers that be. Buried in therapy bills and berated by a wife whose head remains amusingly cropped out of frame like one of Charlie Brown’s teachers, Bigfoot comes to the sorry realization that unwashed Doc might be the only friend he’s got.
There’s a melancholy undercurrent gathering force as the movie sidewinds its way through the convoluted mystery. “Inherent Vice” has more in common with “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” than just an attorney played by Benicio Del Toro. They’re both about the death of a certain dream of the 1960s—about waking up one morning with a horrible hangover in Richard Nixon’s America.
Late in the game, Anderson drops a hauntingly romantic flashback, rather unsubtly set to Neil Young’s “Journey Through The Past.” But it ends as abruptly as it began, revealing that the empty field where Doc and Shasta once kissed in the rain has now been filled by the ghastly corporate offices of The Golden Fang. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot and the bad guys bought it all up while nobody was paying attention.•••
Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.