Clearly Paul Thomas Anderson has a thing for the storied eras of America's past. Boogie Nights welcomed in the rise of the porn industry during the flared-pant, disco-fueled '70s; the more nuanced The Master took up the arc of an L. Ron Hubbard-like charlatan in the wake WWII; while There Will be Blood negotiated the nasty, avaricious early roots of the American oil grab. Anderson's latest, Inherent Vice, is no exception. In texture it's an ode to the psychedelic '70s of free love and rampant recreational drug use.
Anderson's always been a contemplative filmmaker with a keen sense of perverse quirk, and those qualities really come to the fore in Inherent Vice, a gumshoe noir on LSD if ever there was one. The stalwart indie director —who proved his ability to handle the opus works of literary lions by spinning Upton Sinclair's Oil! into There Will be Blood — delves deep into Thomas Pychon's far-roaming 2009 novel with baroque gusto.
One could argue that Inherent Vice is a stoner movie of sorts that could live in the company of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Big Lebowski. But besides some droll tongue-in-cheek reefer moments and the copious amount of weed burned, Vice shares little with these films. Its true core aptly lies akin to Robert Altman's elegiac The Long Goodbye and Roman Polanski's Chinatown. The latter takes place well before Vice, but in plot — a pulpy mystery built around a contemptuous antihero — Vice and Chinatown couldn't be more alike. Both built around a contemptuous antihero ensnared in an enigma that pulls a rich potpourri of persona down into a vortex of serpentining madness.
Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) might just be the apogee of the antihero archetype. He smokes so much weed he's in a continual, near catatonic state and stutters and muddles his way through matters with disheveled nonchalance. For most, this would be a professional liability, especially as Doc's a private eye. Throughout, the scruffy sleuth, remarkably and gainfully employed, maintains a steadfast commitment to the task at hand and remains nonplused even as goons come crashing through his door or a naked ex-girlfriend drops in and explains how she was a sex slave to a notorious real-estate mogul.
Like Chinatown, land rights and family plots lie at the film's MacGuffin-driven core. The PI's ex, a nubile hippie chick by the name of Shasta (Katherine Waterson in a breakout role) hires Doc. Shasta wants to figure out why her current boyfriend's wife (Serena Scott Thomas) is scheming to have her hubby (Eric Roberts) placed in a sanatorium and take all his money. Thing is, Shasta then goes missing herself and another trippy lass, Hope (Jenna Malone), enlists Doc to locate Hope's husband (Owen Wilson), a jazz musician who may or may not moonlight as a police informant, CIA operative, or UFO abductee.
Inherent Vice's plot isn't as far out as most of its characters, and there may be more breaks into sudden feverish sex than doobies get fired up. The most bizarre scene features Martin Short as a coke-propelled dentist who acts out his sudden sexual urges with a comely aide. Then there's Josh Brolin as Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. If you could fuse Jack Webb from Dragnet with Nick Nolte and stir in a dash of Ted Cruz, you'd have Bigfoot. He's a flat-top, GOP voting, hippie-hating, counter-culture squashing L.A. detective who has an estranged bro-mance with Doc. One moment the hammerhead's beating Doc senseless or kicking in his door and trashing his stash, the next, they're at a comfy roadside dinner and Bigfoot is ordering pancakes.
Of the two, it's Brolin who bites into the role with greater relish, but then again, on paper alone, a sociopathic megalomaniac is far juicier than a burnt out dick. The women, Malone, Waterson, and Reese Witherspoon as an uptight DA, shine as supporting players.
Big mutton sideburns and shaggy dog affability, Doc's not the kind of guy Raymond Chandler or even Gordon Parks would hang a hat on, but Anderson wraps his auteur arms around his flawed protagonist with warmth and care. Inherent Vice isn't everyone's kinda trip, but it is righteous fun for those who enjoy the high.