Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix: Her) fancies himself the Phillip Marlowe of the Free Love generation. With long hair, lots of drugs and a general distrust of the establishment, Doc runs a small private detective agency — when he’s not bumming around on the beach, high as a kite.
When Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston: Boardwalk Empire) shows up asking for a favor, Doc knows it’s bad news. Shasta’s latest flame is real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts: Jake’s Road), who owns half the county. But Mickey’s wife and her new boyfriend disapprove of Mickey’s New Age philosophy. Afraid he’ll give away his millions and leave them destitute, the Mrs. and her boy toy want Shasta’s help to have Mickey committed.
Shasta wants Doc to figure out what’s really going on and to foil the plot against Mickey. Still in love with Shasta, Doc agrees. On his first day of snooping, Mickey goes missing, and Doc wakes up next to a dead body.
Now Doc must solve a murder, find a mogul and remember where he hid his stash, all while avoiding the oppressive attentions of his police officer nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).
Daffy, fun and fairly nonsensical, Inherent Vice will make you feel as high as Doc. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) adapted Thomas Pynchon’s California pulp into a woozy cluster of character and comedic set pieces. Think of it as Chinatown on a bender.
Pynchon’s novel has been called unfilmable, and Anderson may prove the point. Inherent Vice is a visually rich, deep character piece, but the central mystery and surrounding plots are nearly incomprehensible. Characters wander in and out of scenes, plotlines are dropped or randomly introduced. You’ll need a flowchart to keep up with everything.
Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can. Anderson has always been able to coax fantastic, nuanced performances from his actors, and in Inherent Vice it’s Phoenix. He gives a wonderful, lived-in performance that makes Doc a loveable loser instead of an annoying cliché.
As Doc’s police foil, Brolin offers surprising depth in what could have been silly. Brolin grounds Bigfoot’s establishment persona in a mix of repression and depression that make the character almost tragic instead of a brute.
For all the great performances, the real star of any Anderson film is the camera work. He carefully crafts each scene, with framing, art design and tracking shots that add depth. A wealth of sunny vistas, urban grime and 1960s’ sensibilities, Inherent Vice is a beautiful sight, even if you can’t follow the plot.
Much like Doc’s journey through money and free love, Inherent Vice isn’t an easy path. It will challenge and confound you.
Fair Mystery • R • 148 mins.