Sexy, seedy, and swirling, Inherent Vice is a hilariously louche and ramshackle psychedelic beach noir, a jubilant spin painting in which the characters have been scattered and splattered to the edges of the frame. Like spying in a stranger’s sketchbook, it’s radically befuddling, sometimes incoherent, frequently inspired, always offbeat: a film about a stoner which itself seems stoned.
When private eye Doc Sportello’s ex-old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire land developer boyfriend whom she just happens to be in love with, and a plot by his wife and her boyfriend to kidnap that billionaire and throw him in a looney bin, Doc learns that “love” is one word that usually leads to trouble. Sporting a ridiculously stacked ensemble (Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short), Inherent Vice’s highlights include a superb Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) as the perennially bewildered Doc and a career-making performance from the unforgettably striking Katherine Waterston.
Based on legendary author Thomas Pynchon’s exquisite stoner mystery set at the dawn of the ‘70s, Inherent Vice has a whirling, blurring trajectory. Trying to pare back Pynchon without killing the joke wasn’t a challenge – it was an impossible task. Noble “failure” or otherwise, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) has done a remarkable job of replicating the crazy kaleidoscope of crime, dope, and raunch the novelist conjured. Indeed, the spiralling, wordplay-happy script never quite resolves the difficulty of adapting the philosophical sprawl, but the film remains a fine place to hang out for 2.5 hours.
With a cast of characters that includes surfers, hustlers, rockers, dopers, LAPD detectives, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, Inherent Vice is undiluted Pynchon-Anderson madness. Its central character is part shaman, part shamus, part shambolic disaster. Daffier, looser, freer, and friendlier than anything touched by PTA since Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice is so funny, so strange, so charmingly deranged that it bakes your brain, in a good way.
While its surface cousins are none other than The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice is a slapstick noir homage that doesn’t just reward, but demands multiple viewings, calling to mind LA Confidential, Inland Empire, and Anderson’s own Magnolia. It’s a head trip that plays like impure jazz, with a reverb that can leave you dazed, confused, and even annoyed. Packed with sublime hilarity and soulful reveries, it supplies good dosages of stoner giggles and mixes absurdity with an air of looming cataclysm.
An affectionate riff on the gumshoe genre and an audacious stylistic leap for Anderson, Inherent Vice is a wondrously fragrant movie, emanating sweat, the stink of pot clouds, and the press of hairy bodies. Robert Elswit’s speckled, sun-dappled photography and Jonny Greenwood’s score – ranging from jazzy freakbeat to anxious pulsations of electronic analog – are expectantly delectable. Big, wistful, confounding, and wonderfully oddball, it’s a film you sink into, like a haze on the road, even as it jerks you along with spikes of humour.
Inherent Vice is not only the first Pynchon movie; it could also be the last, best, and most exasperating one that we’ll ever receive, capturing the heady vibe of the novel while stumbling into the great cinematic lineage of fatalistic California “sunshine noir” (The Long Goodbye, Chinatown), where the question of “whodunit?” inevitably leads to an existential vanishing point.
Certainly, Inherent Vice may be criticized as only intermittently compelling, a little insular, too cool for school. It’s drugged camp, all showing and no telling, and may leave some viewers feeling unmoored. Yet it’s gnarled and goofy, in a studied way. Anderson brings us tangibly close to the colours and moods and dream horizons of America in the days of Hawks and Doves. Pynchon, Phoenix, Anderson – these are towering talents, proven time and again. And Waterston’s a literal knockout as the femme fatale; in a bravura erotic set piece, she’s gobsmackingly great.
Inherent Vice should come with a prescription that instructs the viewer to let the movie wash over them like a cloud of smoke blown into one’s face. It’s an acquired taste, something that’s meant to be experienced, rather than fully understood; its layered, complex tempers are legion. You can almost get a contact high from watching. Team PTA, always and forever.