A zany but enjoyable stoner sleuth more about its characters than its story.
Paul Thomas Anderson makes time travel look so easy. His films jump into the era of their stories so wholly, you’d think Anderson walked into the past with his film crew and shot on location. Inherent Vice is no different, with a milieu perfected by shag carpet walls, leather couches, big cars, smoke screens, and plenty of ’70s Los Angeles pulp. So if you’re looking for a gumshoe noir, the credentials are there in abundance, right down to a deadpan narrator. But if you’re looking for a satisfying mystery, Inherent Vice is two and a half hours of brain-twisting that incites feelings, though satisfaction may not be among them. The plot of the film is secondary, nay tertiary, to the atmosphere and characters leading it. So don’t feel bad reacting with utter perplexity to the film’s storyline. And in fact if that’s what your after, maybe read Thomas Pynchon’s book first, because at least there you can earmark pages and underline names.
Watching the film is a bit like trying to grab a goldfish in water. The film begins when stoner private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She spills on him the story of her new man Mickey Wolfmann, a real estate mogul whose wife and her lover have a plan to send him away to the looney bin and take his money. The next day Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) visits Doc at his “office”—a room at a gynecology office Doc uses—and hires Doc to find an old jail acquaintance of his who owes him money. That acquaintance just happens to work for Wolfmann. Doc takes a trip out to see the latest land development of Wolfmann’s and finds a sex shop on the premises. He’s knocked unconscious and wakes up next to the dead body of Khalil’s jail buddy, surrounded by police.
Thus enters Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) a partner-less, Hollywood fame-seeking LAPD officer both determined to screw Doc and use him to help in his own investigation. The exchanges among Doc and Bigfoot are some of the best in the film. After Doc’s Gilligan’s Island-style maritime lawyer, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) helps him out of the police station, he is visited by yet another potential client. A young widow and ex-drug user, Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) asks Doc to track down her husband, Coy, believing him to be alive. Doc finds Coy (Owen Wilson) easy enough—perhaps a little too easy—when Jade, a girl from the sex shop leads Doc to him while simultaneously warning him to “beware the Golden Fang.” When Shasta goes missing herself, more mystery unravels.
Like fellow LA-based noir Chinatown, the heart of corruption runs deep, and neither the police or FBI can be trusted. Doc is led all over town, and up to a backwards detox house in Ojai. Run-ins with an Aryan biker gang and an underground drug cartel invariably lead to higher stakes. But don’t expect to feel too much tension.
The mystery gets more knotted as this film goes on, broken up with moments of drug-addled weirdness and flashbacks of Doc’s memories of being with Shasta. But like I said the point isn’t exactly to follow along. There’s a lot of dialogue, most of it directly related to the plot, so missing any of it can seem frustrating, but this seems to be Anderson’s intention. In this drug-fueled reverie we’re at the liberty of a distractible hippie. The side-show of interesting things happening around Doc, not to mention the rambling nature of most of the loopy and stoned characters, make it easy to miss key revelations Doc encounters as he sleuths. It’s probably the closest thing to being high any clean person could experience.
The momentum sputters somewhat when the film’s MacGuffin is revealed and suddenly Doc’s motivations seem iffy. And there’s still quite a bit of film left after that point. Things get a little too languid before we’re thrown back into the tornado, almost too confused to feel invested. At that point Inherent Vice becomes more about its moments than its whole, but there are some great ones.
An attempt to track down the people behind the Golden Fang corporation leads to an amusing, jittery, dope-fueled escapade with a coked-out dentist, Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short at his weirdest best), and an addict runaway named Japonica (Sasha Pieterse). The huge cast is rounded out by Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s Deputy DA girlfriend, Penny, who simultaneously helps and hinders him in his sleuthing.
Despite the obvious adaptation flaws that make for a more unrealistic mystery—the ratio of discoveries Doc makes versus those that seem to just find him is rather disappointing—Anderson has crafted a two and a half hour dream sequence that is trippy but also diverting. And believe me it’s even better the second time around, not to mention necessary if you want to feel that you’re truly grasping the plot.
Phoenix proves over and over that in the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson he’s quite malleable, and with his mutton chops and a simultaneously stoned but pleasant expression, he’s a surprisingly likable anti-hero. Brolin and his flat-top haircut embodies menacing and ridiculous with an interesting charisma. But as Doc’s dream-girl, Katherine Waterston is the obvious breakout from the film. She really does shine, though it’s interesting to note that in many ways Inherent Vice is more of a bromance than a romance as Doc and Bigfoot, and to some degree Doc and Coy, have the more curious dynamics.
Anderson is nothing if not a man attuned to detail and the film’s visuals reflect his carefulness. It’s at all times psychedelic and beautiful. Adding ballast to each crafted frame is a perfectly curated soundtrack. Anderson may have erred on the side of density for what will most likely be considered a stoner film, and it’s not likely to earn respect as his best film by any means, but there’s always pleasure in watching an auteur work. If you give yourself up to the madcap kookiness of it all, Inherent Vice will lead you down the rabbit hole on an enjoyable escape and leave you with a contact high that isn’t at all unpleasant.