Like any good noir, Inherent Vice begins with a sexy woman showing up unexpectedly at a private eye's door and asking for help. In this case, it's Shasta (Katherine Waterston) asking her ex-boyfriend Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) for help thwarting a plot to commit her current boyfriend, wealthy real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) to an insane asylum. Then things get weird.
Inherent Vice is the first official film adaptation of a novel by Thomas Pynchon, and the material meets the perfect director in Paul Thomas Anderson. Pynchon's writing is as famously difficult as the writer is reclusive. His best-known work, 1973's Gravity's Rainbow, is a postmodern journey across post-war Europe — the mission to find a single German rocket that holds either highly advanced technology or the key to spiritual transcendence, depending on who you ask. But the plot is itself a red herring, a distraction from the real point of the book, which is Pynchon's twisty wordplay and crazy quilt of interlocking ideas and associations. Pynchon is the master of leaving just vague enough of a trail of breadcrumbs to keep his readers moving forward, grasping for a solution that always seems just out of reach.
In his 2009 novel Inherent Vice, Pynchon uses the framework of the hard-boiled detective novel to create the expectation of story. But instead of the streetwise ladies man Phillip Marlowe, we're investigating the mystery through the perpetually stoned eyes of Doc Sportello. And so, the story is hazy at best.
There's always a THEY in Pynchon's narratives, the mysterious but powerful cabal pulling the strings of history. "If THEY can get you asking the wrong questions, THEY don't have to worry about answers," he wrote in Gravity's Rainbow. In Inherent Vice, THEY take the form of the Golden Fang, which may be a wayward ship, or a tax shelter for dentists, or a murderous Vietnamese drug cartel, or perhaps all of those things at once. Shasta disappears soon after her meeting with Doc and is last seen boarding the Golden Fang, adding urgency to Doc's search. Or at least as much energy as a guy who is frequently seen with a joint in each hand can muster.
Along the way, Doc encounters his frenemy in the LAPD, Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), whose flattop haircut and comically strong jaw renders his head as square as his attitude. Then there is the matter of the missing master of the surf saxophone, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who may or may not have been murdered at some point. And it goes without saying that investigations into matters this complex will require a number of visits to Doc's attorney, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), whose speciality is maritime law, but who dabbles in criminal defense. Doc first meets the conspiracy in the guise of Dr. Blatnoyd, the cocaine-crazed dentist played with great gusto by Martin Short. And he has time for dalliances with his girl on the side, Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball, a perpetually disapproving Reese Witherspoon.
Hitchcock said that mediocre books make the best movies, because great books have great prose that gets lost when you translate it to the screen. Anderson works around this problem by putting the words of Pynchon's narrator in the mouth of Joanna Newsom's Sortilège, a psychic who may or may not be one of Doc's frequent hallucinations. The director uses each increasingly surreal episode in Doc's investigation as a framework to hang a series of indelible images, composed with the help of cinematographer Robert Elswit, who also shot Anderson's Boogie Nights.
For Anderson, whose There Will Be Blood and The Master were both tightly focused character studies, this is a return to sprawling hangout movies like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Phoenix is mesmerizing as Doc, wandering addled through the idyllic, 1970 Southern California landscape in one scene and coolly facing down the FBI in the next. And did I mention this is a comedy? Phoenix is funny as hell when he breaks out into occasional slapstick, as Pynchon's characters are prone to do.
Inherent Vice is proving to be one of those love it or hate it kind of movies, and its cult is already forming like the Mansonite conspiracies that Bigfoot Bjornsen sees in every gathering of dirty hippies. I'm firmly on the side of loving it, but I know it's not for everybody. It's the kind of thing you'll like if you like that kind of thing.