Set in early 1970s Los Angeles and very much indebted to the auteur-driven masterpieces that came out of Hollywood in that era, ‘Inherent Vice’ is a stoner detective art film. You might even be tempted to call it the first of its kind, were it not for the fact that Robert Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ and the Coen brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’ got there first. Paul Thomas Anderson’s contribution to the unofficial trilogy faithfully adapts Thomas Pynchon’s novel and carves out ground halfway between those two films while also emerging as a distinctly singular experience. It’s at once one of the most breezily entertaining and willfully difficult films of the year. That’s a beautiful contradiction.
A heavily sideburned Joaquin Pheonix stars as Pynchon’s perpetually high L.A. detective Doc Sportello. Attempting to summarize the plot is a nearly impossible task bordering on a fool’s errand, but I shall try. The film opens with Doc’s ex-old-lady (Katherine Waterston) appearing out of the blue to set the stoner sleuth on the path of unlocking a mystery involving her new old man, a possibly corrupt real estate tycoon (Eric Roberts). As Doc stumbles through his days, a few other cases emerge involving a Black Panther-like militant (Michael K. Williams), some bumbling FBI agents (including Reese Witherspoon), an almost mythical ship called the Golden Fang, a big ol’ stack of heroin, a lost jazz musician (Owen Wilson) and a coked-up dentist played by Martin Short. (Hey, why not?) All of the cases intertwine and contradict each other, leaving Sportello lost in a cloud of mystery almost as thick as the cloud of soft drugs that he constantly ingests. His wise-cracking lawyer buddy (Benicio Del Toro) and frenemy local detective/wannabe actor (Josh Brolin) join the case, and eventually all the pieces tie together while leaving them just out of reach.
‘Inherent Vice’ is a film best experienced more than once. It’s a specific type of detective story in which the hero is almost incidental to the main mystery, combined with rambling stoner comedy mechanics, which makes the movie willfully opaque on first viewing. You’re supposed to be lost as a viewer, and that’s part of the trippy fun. On second viewing, all of that gets tossed aside and what emerges is another of Paul Thomas Anderson’s L.A. tapestry pieces like ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Magnolia’ that paints a colorful portrait of an era through a collection of eccentric oddballs and outsiders whose lives bounce off each other through chance, coincidence and ugly fate.
On one level, it’s an incredibly fun comedy in which immensely talented actors play off each other in a series of loosely connected sketches shot through a layered collection of visual gags loosely inspired by the Zucker brothers. (Just wait until you see the massage parlor sequence.) Simultaneously, the film offers up a tragic portrait of characters who once defined their lives by the empty promises of 1960s radicalism or hedonism, but now fall dumbstruck into the cynical disillusionment of the ’70s. There’s a tragic underpinning to all the fun and a darkly comedic wit to all the tragedy. The movie seems to take on everything at once while signifying nothing. Plus, it throws in a detective yarn for good measure. The film has quite a bit for thoughtful viewers to unpack and plenty of weirdo comedy to make the process as joyous as possible.
Anderson remains a visual master, using what is quickly (and tragically) becoming the dated medium of 35mm film to cast a foggy glow over everything. Like his mentor Robert Altman’s ‘Long Goodbye’, the camera remains restless throughout, zooming and panning immaculately composed frames over little details and faces. The audience is given the view of a curious observer, constantly peaking and leering at everything in search of answers that may or may not be there. It’s a beautiful film to behold without a second of screen time in which this master filmmaker doesn’t have a fascinating actor and performance at the center of his mobile frames.
Phoenix is the anchor, nimbly jumping from broad comedy to pained tragedy like the brilliant performer he is. It’s a strong bit of acting, just one that never inches out of the shadow of his showier supporting players or the astounding work he delivered for Anderson in ‘The Master’. Josh Brolin steals the movie as a character who’s both a hilarious cartoon and a painfully empathetic failure. He pops in and out of the story and never ceases to enthrall in each appearance (especially when given a ridiculous afro wig in one scene or a series of chocolate covered bananas in others, all of which are destined to become GIFs). Katherine Waterson’s broken hippie/femme fatale offers intriguing mystery, soulful sadness, and one of the finest single scenes of acting by anyone this year. (You’ll know it when you see it.) I could go on to say the same about everyone else in the cast from Hong Chow’s perky plot device to Eric Roberts’ single scene show-stopper or Martin Short’s derange blast of black comedy. Everyone who gets even a second of screen time delivers some of the best work of their careers.
Like pretty much everything that Paul Thomas Anderson has done over his seven film career, ‘Inherent Vice’ will alienate and enthrall in equal measure. The director doesn’t make easy movies, yet he offers pure pleasure to those viewers on his wavelength. In Thomas Pynchon, he’s found a collaborator who doubles down on that potential audience split. This is a very faithful adaptation of a tricky author whose novels are filled with weird little digressions that could hold the key to the entire work or could merely be fascinating side-streets. That’s how Anderson also likes to construct his movies, and he makes no apologies or concessions.
Despite those warnings and all the inevitable difficulties, I won’t hesitate for one second in naming ‘Inherent Vice’ one of the best movies of 2014 (if not the, best full stop). Contrasted against his last two historical epics about the distinctly American poisons of Capitalism and religion, ‘Inherent Vice’ is a comparatively minor Paul Thomas Anderson effort. Thankfully, even minor Anderson is better than the work of almost any other American filmmaker.