Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy new stoner noir Inherent Vice isn’t a movie to be solved or figured out. That may sound counterintuitive for a detective story, but it worked well enough for The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski. Instead, Anderson’s film is something to be experienced, like a psychedelic drug trip where the journey trumps the destination. Unfortunately, his journey just didn’t do it for me.
Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s deliriously digressive novel — in my opinion, the most accessible and riotous work in the hermetic author’s canon — Inherent Vice deserves credit for its dizzy idiosyncrasy, bold ambition, and attention to the look and patchouli-scented smell of the fictional Southern California surf town of Gordita Beach circa 1970. But in too many ways, it feels like an epic shrug of the shoulders — a labor of love that’s more interesting for the filmmaker than his patience-tested audience. To some degree, this is where Anderson’s career has been headed since the brilliant one-two punch of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. He’s one of American cinema’s most talented and singular voices, a true original in a town with too few of them. But his more recent films (2007’s There Will Be Blood and especially 2012’s The Master) displayed an emotional chilliness that kept you at an arm’s length.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as dazed and confused P.I. Larry ”Doc” Sportello, a weed-toking gumshoe with bushy mutton-chop sideburns and the zonked air of a counterculture casualty. The sensimilla-and-sandals summer of love is over. And the hippie dropouts Doc routinely meets up with in the seedy health food joints and waterfront dive bars on L.A.’s fringes are too beatifically spaced out to realize that their side has lost — that the straight world, as embodied by Nixon in the Oval Office, are still calling the rigged shots. The LAPD (in the form of Josh Brolin’s flat-topped, frozen-banana-chomping Lt. Det. ”Bigfoot” Bjornsen) are corrupt, showboating sadists, and the fat cats lounging in Bel Air are perverse hedonists protected by Aryan Brotherhood bodyguards. It’s a post-Manson era of paranoia, lost innocence, and bad vibes.
In some ways, Inherent Vice is like a doper nod to Robert Altman’s laid-back 1973 So Cal classic The Long Goodbye. But Anderson’s whodunit is less interested in who actually done it than piling up red herrings and cranking up the soundtrack. At the beginning of the film, Doc is still nursing the wounds of an ex-girlfriend who walked out on him (Katherine Waterston’s wounded flower child Shasta Fay Hepworth). Then one day, she shows up at his seedy surfside crash pad to enlist his help. It seems her latest lover, a real-estate mogul sugar daddy (Eric Roberts), has vanished in a kidnapping plot. And Shasta simmers with just enough sexual desperation to make sure Doc can’t say no. All further exposition is left to the film’s off-screen narrator (Joanna Newsom’s astrologer Sortilege) to unspool in the sultry voice of a late-night DJ. It’s a device that not only wasn’t in Pynchon’s book, it doesn’t quite work in Anderson’s film.
The abduction is ostensibly the event that drives the narrative forward, but it’s really just an excuse to send Doc head-first into a swirling orbit of Nazi bikers, surf-rock musicians (Owen Wilson plays one), and Asian massage-parlor vixens (highlighted by Hong Chau’s scene-stealing, squeaky voiced Jade) who all flamboyantly pinball in and out of the story like they have a plane to catch. Doc figures out that the invisible hand behind the missing-person case is a shadowy cartel called The Golden Fang, which may be a harmless fraternity of dentists (including a giddily coked-up Martin Short dressed in velvet), or a high-seas heroin smuggling ring, or perhaps something much bigger and deadlier.
If all of this sounds confusing, you’re not wrong. Even having read Pynchon’s novel, I was often lost by the film’s byzantine barrage of batty detours, switchbacks, and dropped clues. But like Pynchon, Anderson doesn’t seem overly concerned with telling a story that adds up. He’s noodling like Jerry Garcia on ”Box of Rain.” As ever, Phoenix is fascinating to watch. He’s one of those rare actors who can juggle daffy slapstick, internal combustion, and foggy bemusement — sometimes all that the same time. And he makes you almost believe that being stoned is the only way to make sense of the world. As his straight-world tormenter, Brolin is equally fast and loose. He’s all hair-trigger bluster. But there’s a scene late in the film where he lets down his guard and reveals the insecurity beneath his tin-badge swagger and hunger for media attention that borders on heartbreaking. As for Waterston, the tragic, sad-eyed enigma at the heart of the film, she’s a true discovery. You understand why a guy like Doc is haunted by her. It’s a shame her turn is marred by her long, naked confessional in the film’s third act. It’s gratuitous and out of place and makes the movie skid to a WTF halt.
I loved Pynchon’s novel, and I wanted to feel the same gonzo passion for Anderson’s take on it. But neither man seems interested in loving their audiences back. They traffic in mysteries yet seem annoyed at providing answers. I suppose you could argue that that’s the point of Inherent Vice. Not all of life’s riddles are meant to be solved and they’re rarely handed to us gift-wrapped with a bow. Still, Anderson’s film, despite its groovy contact-high spirit, is like a table full of haphazardly strewn jigsaw-puzzle pieces that are never assembled, just rearranged in a different haphazard pile. Inherent Vice is half-baked Raymond Chandler. With too much emphasis on the baked part. C