Inherent Vice, the film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel from director Paul Thomas Anderson, follows the bunglings and accidental revelations of one Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a 1970’s burnout PI on the hunt for his missing ex-girlfriend. To sketch any more of the labyrinthine plot would be like digging deep into the personality and motivations of Optimus Prime—it’s not the point, man. Let’s say the movie starts with the arrival of Doc’s “old lady,” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), and from there it spins out to lesbian massage parlors, Nazi biker gangs, dubious real estate moguls, wannabe actor cops, muscle-bound spiritual gurus, cult surf bands (cult in membership, not underground fandom), heroin casualties and what may or may not be a massive international crime cartel in league with the CIA. All of this churns in a tone that is equal parts Altman and Zucker, Up in Smoke and The Parallax View. In short, a slice of Los Angeles circa 1970.
Pynchon is a maximalist nonpareil and Anderson understands that in the author’s jokey, encyclopedic world, some details are pointless, some details mean everything. It depends on how you look at it. Up close, the movie feels like one long elbow in the ribs by the smartest kid in the back row of class. Wide angled and you’re watching an incredible social mix of post-Manson Los Angeles (and by extension, post-Manson America), where the freedom and hope of ’60s activism and culture has given way to sadness, paranoia, confusion, absurdity and an impossible web of conflicting groups hellbent on keeping their corner of the world alive. Or, at the very least, hellbent on scoring some primo weed.
Anderson does two things right here: his filmmaking stays out of the way of Pynchon’s pyrotechnics (Anderson’s Altman is in ascendancy, Kubrick in decline) and he casts the movie with actors who embrace this odd balance of farce and fear. Waterston is in many ways the heart of the movie. She certainly is the sexual and emotional center, a sort of sunset Aphrodite in bikini bottoms, melancholy but unable to make any changes for the better. Phoenix is his usual mumbling bumbling self; elastic and stoned silly one minute and clear-eyed savior the next. You realize as an actor just how spot-on his facial and physical control really is. There is not a moment when he breaks from being an absolute buffoon hedonist with a heart of gold.
As for the rest of the giant cast, there are moments when the parade of new faces becomes distracting and then there are scenes when specific characters elevate the film entirely. I’m thinking of expert turns by Martin Short as a drug snorting dentist on the make and Josh Brolin as Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornson, a part-time actor and cop, full time 1950s American male manqué and certainly Doc’s foil, if not his great love. Without Bigfoot, no Doc and vice versa. This odd pair is Pynchon’s and Anderson’s point in microcosm—conflicting forces (Doc and Bigfoot, ’50s order and ’60s chaos, laughter and fear, paranoia and safety, beauty and disgust) were the tenor of the times. These very times might be the Big Bang for our current cycle of fear that seeks distraction, distraction that becomes disquiet. It’s all how you look at it.
I’m not sure what the lasting influence of Inherent Vice will be. I noticed the same seat shuffling and half chuckling when I saw Vice’s gumshoe antecedent, The Big Lebowski. That movie is considered a milestone by most and a masterpiece by many. Vice is a different beast. To his credit, Anderson is dealing with one of the great American tropes here—the detective thriller—and bringing something unique and odd to the table. In the middle of an utter morass of character and event is an individual trying to parse through what seems to be acres of bullshit, but bullshit on a much wider scale than the mere corrupt police forces and crime syndicates of the past. We’re talking bullshit on a national, even international, scale here. Ask any conspiracy theorist you know—the corridors of power are secretive and vast.
Ultimately, the point of the movie isn’t that knotty and elusive. “We is Doc,” the movie seems to say. If you’re confused by the world while still trying to do the right thing, in love but not totally sure all the time where your love lies, if you’re terrified of what your country has become but you’re unable to do anything substantial about it and because of your confusion and self-doubt you ultimately settle on just wanting to get by without getting you or your loved ones killed, well then yes, you and I are in fact Doc.