I suspect there are people who can resist a movie with lines like, “He forced my little girl to listen to original Broadway cast albums while he had his way with her,” but I am not one of those people. That is just one of the many nuggets of such bizarre dialogue to be found and savored in Paul Thomas Anderson’s willfully messy, deliberately convoluted film version of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice. It marks a distinct departure from the filmmaker’s last film, The Master (2012), a fact that troubles more than a few reviewers, but which delights me, because I didn’t care much for The Master. This is freer, looser — and as far as I’m concerned, ultimately deeper than the ponderous profundity of The Master. It’s also just a whole lot more fun.
The film, which takes place in 1970, follows stoner, sandal-clad private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he becomes further and further enmeshed in a mystery that makes Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep — or Howard Hawks’ even more impenetrable 1946 film of that novel — look positively straightforward. It all starts when Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), shows up at his beach house looking for help and spouting a weird story about the real estate mogul she took up with who seems to have gone missing. Just what she wants him to do — other than help her — is vague, but it’s quickly obvious that this blonde, tanned hippie chick is Doc’s ideal — the one who got away and whom he’s still hung-up on, even though she’s become everything she said she never would. In a sense, Shasta is the device that drives the film’s increasingly convoluted plot. But in a broader sense, her sellout hippie is symbolic of the idea that the idealism of the ’60s counterculture — to which Doc clings — is starting to slip away. For him to not pursue her mystery — especially when she, too, disappears — would be to let go of that ideal.
The case takes Doc into an even stranger world than the one he inhabits — a world he views through a haze of marijuana smoke (and just about any drug he runs into) but with a wary canniness. But who wouldn’t be wary in a world involving a Jewish real estate mogul (Eric Roberts) who wants to be a Nazi, a burnout rock saxophone player (Owen Wilson) who lets the world believe he’s dead, a mysterious, dangerous organization called the Golden Fang, Martin Short as a sex-crazed dentist in a purple suit and patently corrupt FBI agents who try to recruit Doc as an informer (offering to throw in a free Book of Mormon)? It takes place in a post-Manson world of paranoia where the cops see cults everywhere (in fact, any time more than three people are together).
If that’s not enough, there’s the ex-heroin addict wife (Jena Malone) of the sax player, who’s turned drug counselor — which in the world of Inherent Vice means her goal is to “try to talk kids into sensible drug use.” We also have Doc’s longtime (apparently since high school) nemesis Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a henpecked, repressed homosexual who gets his kicks beating up Doc — when he’s not using him for his own ends — and sucking on chocolate-covered frozen bananas. And there’s Doc’s lawyer (a specialist in Marine law) Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (Benicio Del Toro) — and Doc’s quasi-friend Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), who sometimes provides him with information and even spends the evening with him (with the proviso that he wash his feet).
This barely scratches the surface of Inherent Vice‘s cornucopia of curiosities. And, like a real Raymond Chandler tale, the film has a narrator, Doc’s friend Sortilége (Joanna Newsome), to observe and keep track of things, but the trick is — based on the evidence of the film — she probably doesn’t exist outside of Doc’s mind. After all, we’re dealing with a hero who follows shooting someone by asking, “Did I hit you?” So really, all bets are off. Because of the setting and stoned-out nature of Doc, the character has been likened by many to the Dude in the Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998), but this is singularly off base. Doc has actual motivations that go way beyond being recompensed for a rug and a serious side — one that is true to a set of core beliefs in redemption and a sense of empathy (even for Bigfoot).
Anderson — with help from his set designers — does a great job of creating an authentic atmosphere of the era without recourse to the more obvious choices, especially where the soundtrack picks are concerned. Stylistically, Inherent Vice is surprisingly — and effectively — straightforward. It’s interesting to see people comment that the film is composed mostly of long static shots. Truth is those shots are rarely static. Anderson’s camera is almost imperceptibly creeping in — drawing the viewer in — on the characters. It’s an amazing — and unusual — feat to employ moving camera that goes unnoticed. But this is an amazing and unusual movie — one that will delight some, puzzle others (you really have to pay attention) and even anger some. I think that’s a good thing. Maybe a great one. Rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence.