Released in 2009, Thomas Pynchon's '70-era stoner detective novel "Inherent Vice" was deemed by many diehard fans as one of the loopy writer's lesser efforts. You could pigeonhole Paul Thomas Anderson's largely faithful adaptation along similar lines, as it lacks the advanced cinematic gestures of his last few movies. But both works stand on steadier ground when considered outside their creators' other achievements.
A Grand Tradition
Pynchon's book translates to the screen with a wandering narrative that's as muddled as it is endearing. The approach exists in a grand tradition of discursive storytelling: "Inherent Vice" joins the ranks of "The Big Sleep," "The Long Goodbye," and "The Big Lebowski," shaggy dog tales of baffled private investigators in which the plot barely adds up and doesn't really matter, anyway.
Here, the mystified protagonist is Larry "Doc" Sportello (a mutton-chopped Joaquin Phoenix), an eternally doped-up investigator. While attempting to track down his missing ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) and bust the shady landowner Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), with whom she's engaged in an affair, he dodges the conspiratorial advances of local police chief "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who harbors dubious motives of his own.
In the meantime, Doc is tasked with tracking down a wayward musician (Owen Wilson) who abandoned his family and faked his death. Everything's connected and adds up to something, but never all at once. Those unfamiliar with the novel may find the details pretty hard to follow — but that's fine. Doc's never too far from his next joint, and we're right there with him.
Like the book, "Inherent Vice" is enmeshed in Doc's perpetual bewilderment. But Anderson trades the goofy energy of Pynchon's prose for a sweeter vibe. Some of the book's more outrageous moments, including an outlandish acid trip, have been dropped in favor of episodes that encapsulate Doc's fractured relationship to the world. Anderson turns book passages into voiceover narration read by Joanna Newsom, who has a bit part as one of Doc's regular female companions.
Phoenix's perplexed expression is matched by Johnny Greenwood's wonderfully meandering soundtrack, which — along with several well-selected pop songs from the period — enrich the movie with the tenor of Doc's jumbled experiences.
Another Side to PTA
"Inherent Vice" never reaches comedically vibrant heights, but the movie has plenty of charm. While the setting returns Anderson to the "Boogie Nights" era," it trades that movie's pizzazz — not to mention its epic scope — for the probing qualities found in "The Master." While swapping ominous atmosphere for playful soul-searching, it retains the same predilection for raising questions rather than trying to answer them.
In an early exchange, the seductive Shasta pays a visit to Doc and explains how Wolfman's wife and lover have goaded her into taking down the real estate mogul; she then promptly vanishes from the scene. Meanwhile, tracking Wolfman's movements to one of his properties, Doc is knocked unconscious and framed for murder, putting him in the trenchant officer Bigfoot's crosshairs. After Doc's saved from custody by his irreverent lawyer (a deadpan Benicio Del Toro), the p.i. goes about digging for more details involving Wolfman's schemes, gathering information from a supportive district attorney (Reese Witherspoon), with whom he also shares his bed. Meanwhile, Doc and Bigfoot form a curious relationship as they close in on one possible culprit.
More important than any of these incidents is the way Anderson highlights Doc's alternately bemused and frightened state. One effective gag involves repeated cutaways to the scrappy notes he takes in his office as clues pile up ("paranoia," reads one), which reflect his limited perspective rather than any real detective work. Anderson's regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, alternates between shadowy nighttime sequences and a bright palette to evoke the sunny L.A. setting, in a fictional neighborhood called Gordita Beach, which may as well exist within the confines of Doc's hazy mind. Rather than mocking the figure, however, Anderson expresses a genuine empathy for his mystified subjectivity. As a result, in despite of its druggy atmosphere, "Inherent Vice" is less comedy than meets the eye.
But it remains a lighthearted affair, gliding on Phoenix's puzzled appearance and an eccentric cast. As the elusive Shasta, the spirited Waterson is the movie's real discovery, while Brolin's steely-eyed delivery has such a specific weirdness it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Witherspoon and Wilson are little more than fleeting glimpses, but Martin Short provides a burst of humorous eccentricity as a horny dentist in one memorable cameo. A few sketchy incidents involving Doc's investigative efforts include glimmers of slapstick (one more than one occasion, he either stumbles or gets knocked to the ground).
Even so, "Inherent Vice" teases the idea of comedy without reaching for punchlines. The movie showcases another instance — following "The Master" — in which Anderson and Phoenix work to create an unpredictable mood. One violent showdown would register as a pure genre trope were it not for Phoenix's offbeat reaction to it. The partnership isn't perfect: "Inherent Vice" constantly teases at a complex meta commentary on the other movies it brings to mind, but never totally gets there.
Then again, the imperfections only deepen its appeal. In a roundabout way, "Inherent Vice" engages with broader ideas than the odd progression of events at its center. Just as "There Will Be Blood" dealt with the ills of American capitalism and "The Master" explored the perils of religion, "Inherent Vice" hints at a complicated thesis about its particular moment in American history. References to the Manson family and Nixon rallies come and go, but Doc pays little attention to the bigger picture. Eyes glazed over and mouth ajar, he embodies the malaise of an American counterculture that's lost its way, even as it finds glimpses of meaning amid general misdirection. For Doc, every potential clue leads to another dead end — or more to the point, goes up in smoke.
"Inherent Vice" opens nationwide on December 12.