Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a sprawling, intricate Persian rug of a film, so densely packed with detail and texture that it doesn’t warrant repeat viewing so much as demand them. It’s a film of astonishing ambition and craft; it can conceivably work as a kaleidoscopic hard-boiled P.I. jam, an operatic stoner comedy, or a great piece of work about the post-Summer of Love haze engulfing Los Angeles in the early 1970s. The film was adapted by Anderson from the 2009 book of the same name by Thomas Pynchon, the foremost master of exhilarating fractal sentences and po-mo narrative frameworks. Pynchon’s layered prose proved to be a natural, though idiosyncratic fit within the conventions of 20th century crime fiction, while his sense of scope afforded Anderson the opportunity to work within his particular wheelhouse: vibrant galleries of weirdos and bastards pinballing against each other in alternately amusing and poignant ways.
The facility with characters that binds Anderson and Pynchon together is immediately apparent: private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, armed with some God-tier mutton chops) is solicited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to help find her erstwhile boyfriend, real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (a sorely underused Eric Roberts). Everything we need to know about these characters is right there, in how the scene is composed and executed. The occasional narration by the seemingly-omniscient Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), where Pynchon’s gloriously mutated Chandlerisms are preserved and peppered liberally throughout, certainly helps. What could have felt extraneous ends up adding to the maximalist tapestry the film is weaving. After all, beyond the pedigree, this is a good old-fashioned detective story rife with those most reliable of genre standbys, soured romance and lost idealism. It’s presented in an affected, teased-out way, but it’s there.
Despite this, there’s a fundamental comic streak to the film. The overarching joke of The Big Lebowski (an obvious but necessary comparison point) is that it’s a detective movie where the detective is replaced by an affable loser. Inherent Vice just makes that same loser a private eye; the joke of this film, then, is that the private dick can’t believe that any of this shit is happening, either. Joaquin Phoenix, in a magnificent mostly-comedic turn, plays Sportello like a weed-addled Columbo, acting like a sucker to get ahead, but with the added wrinkle that he is often knowingly way over his head. Each character he encounters is more absurd than the last: the cartoonishly hard-assed LAPD flatfoot Bigfoot Bjornsen (John Brolin, who steals every scene he’s in), the coke-snorting dentist with a runaway teen lover (Martin Short), the Aryan thug with a swastika tattooed on his face (MMA fighter Keith Jardine). That any of it amounts to a real climax involving a legendary surf sax player-turned-fed mole played by Owen Wilson is both a great conceptual joke and a minor miracle.
One of Inherent Vice’s sneakier qualities, given its mix of surrealism and amorphousness, is that it already has the rhythms of altered-state viewership. This film is destined to be a staple of, shall we say, heightened group viewings in dorm complexes and basements everywhere for years to come. So strong is its intoxicating aura that is can exits as a movie a viewer can drift in and out of just as well as it can be a complete narrative unit. And yes, even in its deliberate sprawl and shagginess, Inherent Vice does operate as a cogent narrative. Though deliberately obtuse plot-wise, it lives and dies by its vibe, which remains strong throughout in no small part thanks to wonderful production design and music cues. A great litmus test to see if you’ll enjoy the film happens right at the top: Sportello ushers Shasta Fay to her car, then wanders the street to the tune of Can’s “Vitamin C.” When the neon-lit title card appears as the drums kick in, that’s the moment when you know something special is about to unfold.
Anderson exists professionally in two different states of being. On the one hand, he’s a director like any other, coordinating the moving parts of a film towards a common end. But on the other hand, he’s Paul Thomas Anderson, capital-a Auteur. Very few American directors who are currently active have to shoulder ridiculous volumes of hype and expectation as much as he does. Not only is every new movie an event, but it has gotten to the point where the fans practically anticipate a masterpiece each time. The relative downside of being really good at your job is that you need to stay good at it to keep doing it, especially when millions of dollars or money are dependent on it. Luckily, the deliberate, meticulous nature of the film-making is reflected in the films themselves. Only with Inherent Vice, the craft went into looking laid back. Effortlessness takes a lot of effort.
Inherent Vice is currently in semi-wide release and, by the looks of it, will see a home video release in March.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; written by Paul Thomas Anderson; adapted from the novel Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, and Joanna Newsom; 148 minutes.