It takes a genuine film artist to create an alternate-reality version of a familiar place—real enough to make us feel we’ve been there, or somewhere near there, unreal enough to push it over the edge of familiarity and even sanity.
Sorry, must be the dope talking. But this is what writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has done with Inherent Vice, an exasperating shaggy dog of a noir goof, nearly 2 ½ hours in length, based on the relatively compact 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel.
The mystery at the oscillating center of the story concerns drugs, but altered states of consciousness inform every second of every scene en route, from the beach to the canyons and the scary sunniness of greater Los Angeles. The presence of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, laughing gas, alcohol and, most of all, Anderson’s fond devotion to Pynchon’s intoxicating language act as agents of heightened disorientation.
Coming off the grand, eccentric There Will Be Blood and The Master, a couple of great American movies, Anderson’s latest is smaller potatoes. It’s not quite the right shape; why is this movie, with its surfeit of baroque narrative curlicues, actually longer than The Master, which could’ve easily supported an additional half-hour? Watching Inherent Vice, you sense Anderson rationalizing his overgenerous final cut with the argument that, well, this wasn’t exactly multiplex fare anyway, and Pynchon’s a pretty rich stew for the average moviegoer to begin with. Why not just go for it?
It’s set largely in fictional Gordita Beach. Joaquin Phoenix, with fantastic mutton chops borrowed from Neil Young and Wolverine, plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a beach bum of a private eye—Don Quixote with a joint in one hand, a joint in the other and a third in a drawer somewhere.
The mystery begins with the return of Doc’s ex, Shasta, played by Katherine Waterston in her first major screen role. Even without the centerpiece nude scene, you’d notice her; she may be playing an ancient noir archetype—the slippery dame our hero trusts out of lovelorn loyalty—but she draws you in, just as she reels in Doc to help her out.
One paragraph of plot description is more than enough with Inherent Vice. Shasta’s lover is a powerful L.A. developer who has been packed off to a dubious sanitarium in Ojai. The developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), works with neo-Nazi bodyguards, one of whom is murdered, and Doc’s a suspect. In a variation on True Confessions and a hundred old crime stories, Doc’s frenemy from the old days is Bigfoot Bjornsen of the LAPD, who makes Jack Webb look like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. All roads in Pynchon’s story lead to an Indochinese drug cartel known as the Golden Fang, and Anderson has roped in as many characters from the novel as possible.
As a physical, tactile object, Inherent Vice is inspired. Shot on ever-rarer 35-millimeter film by cinematographer Robert Elswit, the film captures a moment (1970) in LA’s history when the counterculture ran headlong into Ronald Reagan (then California’s governor), Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War and the Charles Manson murders. The novel has its serious undertow, though primarily Pynchon was having a ball with the old private-eye clichés, inventing some of the greatest character names since S.J. Perelman. (Two of my favorites: Petunia Leeway and Scott Oof.)
Though the coming-attractions trailer for Inherent Vice is delightful, the film itself strikes darker, sadder notes than indicated by its marketing campaign. It’s better for it, although a key emotional landing point—the fate of the session musician played by Owen Wilson—doesn’t quite land the way it should. By the time this character, Coy Harlingen, moves into a prominent story place you may find yourself doing a little “Huh? Wha? What’s the connection? Does it matter?” dance in your head.
I suggest the following: Watch the film with neither eye on the plot. Everything else is more interesting. Phoenix is turning into his own comic master of unpredictable timing and sweet-natured naïveté. Josh Brolin (Bigfoot), Reese Witherspoon (Doc’s sometime lover, an assistant district attorney), Martin Short (marvelous as Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S., a dentist not to be trusted) and Joanna Newsom (as beachcomber Sortilege, Doc’s gal Friday and, in Anderson’s adaptation, the narrator) lead a huge cast all marching to the same hazily demented drummer.
Both times I saw Inherent Vice, I experienced roughly the same contradictory responses: delight undercut by puzzlement, followed by a happier sort of puzzlement. Some scenes, such as Witherspoon and Phoenix in a long, single-take dialogue on a park bench, are impeded by over-insistent musical scoring. Shasta’s languid, explicit come-on to Doc and Doc’s reaction (Anderson’s idea, not Pynchon’s) trade one sort of movie for another, and it feels a little exploitative.
The mystery is both the whole deal in Inherent Vice and completely beside the point. Even if you’re transported by Anderson’s craftsmanship and sense of place, there are times when the film itself morphs into “one of those unabridged paranoid hippie monologues” Doc loves so much, as the brutish Bigfoot puts it.
Whatever. Let the walkouts commence. For some of us, Anderson’s L.A. lamentation is a siren song, and there’s no more ardent and poetic chronicler of California mythology.
Inherent Vice (R): ★★★★✩