Los Angeles, 1970, and under the sway of his ex, Shasta (Waterston), private eye Doc Sportello (Phoenix) goes in search of her new lover, a recently vanished tycoon, and literally stumbles into a nutty conspiracy involving corrupt cops, heroin smugglers, snitches, DAs, dentists and a mysterious organisation named The Golden Fang.
How do you review a film that’s deliberately half-crazed? One so overloaded with incident, character and problem hair, you begin to fear for your own sanity? Where plot logic is smothered in psychedelic smog, mostly care of private eye Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s prodigious dope habit?
For his seventh film, Paul Thomas Anderson has elected to adapt off-centre American writer Thomas Pynchon’s seventh novel. None of the famously reclusive novelist’s dizzying tales have ever been adapted before. Pynchon works to the principle that the less a reader is able to grasp, the better. His grand preoccupation is his country’s spiritual welfare, depicting America as one giant, ever-unfolding conspiracy contrived by sinister cabals of squares. And Anderson is keeping faith with his idol’s mystifying visions.
Inherent Vice stoops across the border between the freewheeling Californian ’60s and the uptight Nixonian ’70s, where big business is the ultimate buzz-kill and the Manson murders cast a long, mournful shadow over the countercultural ideal. Symbolically, it opens with the ocean of time lapping at fictional LA outlier Gordita Beach. And, of course, with a girl: Shasta Fay Hepworth (the divinely ethereal Katherine Waterston), Doc’s old flame, who has a case for him. Can he locate her missing boyfriend, a big-time real-estate type, name of Michael Z. Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts, in a hypnotic cameo? And so Doc ‘trips’ into the rabbit hole. An impenetrable investigation given a sweet, sing-songy narration by a local astrologer named Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), spiritual guide and agony aunt to Doc (and, when you think about it, also the voice of Thomas Pynchon).
Doc is a lovably dotty creation, a Fabulous Furry Freak Brother squeezed into Philip Marlowe, at once befuddled and cunning. One of his joys is that we can never be sure of how good a detective he is: do the drugs hinder the little grey cells or help make sense of a world that is already insane?
At one point, Robert Downey Jr. was set to fill Doc’s flip-flops, and he suggests a more welcoming and ironic fit. More Lebowski, if you will. But Inherent Vice has less kinship with the Coens’ bowling noir than the Angelino hippy sleuth set-up might suggest — rather than deadpan, it is surreal. Joaquin Phoenix is barbed wire masquerading as a ball of wool. With mutton chops the size of bat wings, frowzy hair attempting a ’fro, and wide, sorrowful eyes, he brings an air of melancholy and quiet bitterness to Doc’s soulful groove. Doc knows he’s fighting a lost cause. You can’t hold back time.
Beginning at the Chick Planet massage parlour — Pussy Eater Special $14.95! It translates as a string of increasingly wonky encounters, which only serve to make the case (and film) more incoherent. We’ll meet nose-picking FBI agents, missing surf-saxophonists (a draggy Owen Wilson), randy DAs (a perky Reese Witherspoon) and wheedling, coke-snorting Doctor Rudy Blatnoyd (a gleefully letchy Martin Short) with fingers in more than his clients’ mouths. Never more than a breath away from Doc’s meanderings is Josh Brolin’s splendidly odious, Flintstone-girthed, fascist-cropped Lt. Det. ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen sucking ominously on a frozen banana and administering educational dead legs to the “goddam hippy”. They are kind of co-dependent.
Ultimately, the plot will hinge on the question of who, where, when and what is The Golden Fang? Possible answers to which include a boat, a band, a real estate dealership, a cabal of heroin smugglers, an Aryan biker gang, a syndicate of tax-dodging dentists or a new rehab joint-cum-boobyhatch with obscure connections to Burke Stodger, a blacklisted movie star thought to have split for the Bermuda Triangle. The correct answer: all of the above. You dig?
This is noir at its most playful. There are bright bursts of comic invention and slapstick (and sharp shocks of violence, too). Clandestine meetings occur in back alleys as foggy as Doc’s headspace. The language, much of it lifted verbatim from the book, is a nimble, beguiling blend of zeitgeisty nuggets and hippy jive. People ponder “karmic trends” and “boulevards of regret”. Even the alt-Dickensian names hint at bizarre ulterior meanings: Sauncho Smilax, Penny Kimball, Japonica Fenway, Riggs Warbling, Petunia Leeway.
Inspired by Robert Altman’s unkempt Chandler re-do The Long Goodbye, Anderson does lovely, long talky takes and intimate close-ups, either flushed in neon colours (for a ’60s vibe) or drained to municipal browns (for the ’70s hangover). Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood again provides off-kilter ambience between a Tarantino-style mix of hipster tunes.
Inherent Vice is way too eccentric to land awards, but it’ll probably live longer than whatever wins. This is the work of a major American filmmaker, repelling categorisation and messing with our heads. A second viewing is heartily recommended. We’re pretty confident it does add up. Not that it really matters. In the end, this is just a movie about a guy who has lost a girl. You dig?
Take it from us — ignorance is bliss. The less you try to figure out Anderson’s rambling, mesmerising mystery, the better. Just relax and let this beautiful, haunting, hilarious, chaotic, irritating and possibly profound tragicomedy wash over you. There is nothing else out there like it.