Inherent Vice is a film that arrives with many expectations attached: It’s the first time the work of Thomas Pynchon (author of such 20th-century masterworks as Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49) has ever been adapted for the screen. It’s also writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to a pair of toweringly ambitious dramas, There Will Be Blood and The Master, and his first film that could be called a comedy since Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. This novelist and this director seem like a natural match: Both share a love for linguistic play and a sly, ribald sense of humor. Both love creating huge, sprawling casts of characters, distinctive milieux that come complete with their own native lingo and logic. And both are interested in telling stories that, while grounded in specific human relationships, also view modern American life with a savagely satirical eye.
But for all its bold thematic scope and agreeably shaggy spirit, Inherent Vice felt to me like Incoherent Vice: a rambling detective story with a plot even harder to follow than that of Pynchon’s novel (which, though brilliantly written, is itself labyrinthine and diffuse). It may well be that Anderson is deliberately neglecting to tie off every thread of the multiple intersecting crime plots. Many noir and neo-noir classics, from Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (both of which make their ghostly presence felt here) have proudly flouted the need to solve every single murder. But I’m sure Anderson didn’t set out to create a movie in which the energy would drop off this steeply after the first hour—even if his romantic detective hero is a zonked-out hippie slacker.
In the malaise-drenched year of 1970, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a small-time private eye in the fictional SoCal town of Gordita Beach, working out of a room he rents at a dentist’s office (where he’s been known to recreationally abuse the laughing-gas mask). One evening, as he’s engaged in his dual hobbies of smoking pot and moping in his dingy beachside bungalow, he’s visited by, as he’ll later put it, his “ex-old lady,” a long-limbed, sad-eyed beauty named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, daughter of Law & Order’s Sam).
In a classic gumshoe setup, Shasta broke Doc’s heart a few years back, but now she needs his help. She suspects her current boyfriend, a married real-estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (to be played, when we eventually meet him, by Eric Roberts), is being set up for a complicated swindle by his wife and her personal-trainer-turned-lover. And when I say complicated, I mean the Wolfmann scheme involves a traffic jam of wrongdoers, including a mysterious cultlike entity known as the Golden Fang; skirt-chasing dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short); and gleefully civil-rights-ignoring LAPD cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who’s made busting Doc’s chops at every turn into a personal priority.
As Doc throws himself into investigating the case—which seems to reach into new arenas of corruption and depravity with each lead he follows—the audience gets pulled into his chronic state of low-level stoner paranoia. Who isn’t involved in the ever-expanding Wolfmann scandal? Does Doc’s current straight-world booty call, Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), know something about the whole seedy scenario he doesn’t? And what about the pretty widow Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), who enlists Doc’s services to find out what really happened to her supposedly deceased husband, legendary surf-band saxophonist Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson)?
Since the fractal proliferation of characters with fun-to-say names is one of the great pleasures of reading Pynchon, I’ll keep going: Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro) is Doc’s friend and reluctant, unpaid attorney. Tariq Khalil (The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams) is a client who comes to issue Doc an obscure warning about Wolfmann’s thuggish Nazi bodyguards, then maddeningly disappears from the story. And Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph) is the all-seeing, seldom-speaking receptionist at the dental practice where Doc rents a makeshift office.
That cast list alone is enough to make Inherent Vice sound foolproof—but, sad to say, too many of these fine performers are never let out of the starting gate. I was especially puzzled by the underuse of Maya Rudolph; after all, no one is in a better position to appreciate her suitability for this brand of highly stylized comic dialogue than the director, her husband. Petunia is one of many minor characters whose big scene we wait for in vain. Though the comic cameos, questionably legal hijinks and raunchy sight gags never stop piling up around him, this is essentially Doc’s story, a character study of a lonely, shambolic burnout trying to preserve what little good he still sees in the world. Phoenix’s soulful and funny performance gives this slightly passive hero a surfeit of personality. As he did in Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix—looking mutton-chopped and grotty, as if he blew off bathing for the length of the shoot—invests his troubled character with a raft of odd tics and off-kilter rhythms. In one scene, shown a photograph of something upsetting (which the viewer never sees), Doc lets loose a jarring shout of alarm that’s comically out of proportion to the social context—but that nonetheless conveys his shock at the image in that photo, and makes us remember it with a chill when it comes up later. There’s method (and maybe Method) in Phoenix’s madness; he makes the goodhearted but perpetually brain-fogged Doc into both a casualty of and a loving tribute to the self-defeating excesses of late-’60s counterculture.
The 35mm cinematography, by Anderson’s longtime collaborator Robert Elswit, is a symphony in murky puces and greens, the nauseating tones of a permanently harshed mellow. On the soundtrack, a spare, spooky score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood alternates with period pop by Neil Young, Sam Cooke, and the director’s late mother-in-law Minnie Riperton. Though she doesn’t play any music, the singer-songwriter and harpist Joanna Newsom has an important role as Doc’s psychic pal Sortilège, who delivers the voiceover narration (much of it direct from Pynchon’s novel) in a voice tinged with beach-bum vocal fry. Inherent Vice’s spiraling, wordplay-happy script never quite resolves the difficulty of adapting this particularly confounding philosophical whodunit, but the film’s groovy sprawl is a fine place to hang out for 2½ hours, as long as, like Doc and his weed-toking cohort, you don’t mind spending a day in a pleasantly disoriented daze.