Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice is a gumshoe tale with pothead logic. Beginning, as all private eye stories do, with a beautiful girl (Katherine Waterson) showing up unexpectedly in a P.I.’s office with a strange tale of dastardly deeds in need of uncovering, Doc, our detective protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix), lights a joint and gets to work. What follows is a druggy wading through 1970 Los Angeles, a stoned stumble through a hazy maze of clues and complications. Around every corner is a funny-named character (like Shasta Fey Hepworth, or Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen) played by a recognizable face in frames dense with vintage detail. Soon a simple situation about a potential financial scheme becomes more about real estate shenanigans (a la Chinatown), a few missing persons cases, a shady transnational syndicate, and maybe more.
Doc’s investigation proceeds as a procession of dialogues as he hunts down the truth. He’s a shaggy hippy ambling into clean-cut offices, hotels, homes, restaurants, and police headquarters, then back to his beach-side hovel to ponder the things he’s heard. It’s the culture clash of 1970, between the square-jawed Americana establishment and the relaxed, politically engaged counter culture, rattling down a dimly understood paranoid logic. Phoenix gives his character a great listening look, holding a mostly invested and intrigued P.I. poker face. He’s always leaning forward – listening closely – or settling back – luring secrets with a confidant’s confidence. And yet he’s also walking about with a perpetually furrowed brow, confusion wafting over every encounter as his pot smolders nearby. He’s like a more purposeful Jeff Lebowski crossed with a high Philip Marlowe.
He may be a bit confused from time to time, sometimes seeming totally adrift in a sea of details and strange asides. But he’s on the case, moving forward, scribbling notes and puzzling over new discoveries as everyone he meets shovels exposition of varying relevance at him. He talks to his aunt (Jeannie Berlin), his assistant (Maya Rudolph), his lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), a cop (Josh Brolin), an ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams), a masseuse (Hong Chau), a potential widow (Jena Malone), a musician (Owen Wilson), a deputy district attorney (Reese Witherspoon), a dentist (Martin Short), a real estate mogul (Eric Roberts), and more. Most appear for only a scene or two. Some contribute valuable new information to move the mysteries along. Others simply add to the flavoring, an offbeat, mellow, and bumbling vibe. They’re whole eccentric beings conjured up to be wonderfully oddball cogs in a fuzzy mystery machine slowly growing clearer.
The film has copious period pleasures – cars and fashions informing characters’ stations, music drifting in over radios and record players, a grainy, vivid, sunny orange and yellow color palate shot in gorgeous time-appropriate cinematography by Robert Elswit. Anderson’s too good a filmmaker to let a scene go to waste, every shot informed by a groovy sense of place and space, as clear as anything in his Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood. There’s always some bit of visual cleverness emphasizing how lost Doc, and we, are in the mysteries at hand. Angles will cut off characters’ heads, hiding their identities from us. Voices will float in from out of frame. Missing time – when our detective is bumped unconscious by an unseen bludgeoner, say, a common trope – is never satisfactorily filled in. We even have a narrator (Joanna Newsom) whose sweetly voiced information is always pleasant but only occasionally helpful.
This is all low-key, low-stakes, loose genre doodling, but what’s often quite transporting about the whole experience is how successfully Anderson puts the audience in the protagonist’s stoned headspace. It’s full of the usual puzzles of detective fiction of its ilk. But the more I struggled to put the pieces together, the more the plot seemed to slip away. Then, suddenly, it falls into place, resolved in some ways, but with loose threads dangling still. It’s a puzzle where the pieces don’t quite fit, even though all the characters seem satisfied enough to move on with their lives, case closed. It’s a detective movie that hits all its marks, but takes enough cues from its stoned lead to leave a drifting fog of lingering confusion in its wake. At one point Doc asks Shasta, “Inherent vice? What’s that mean?” To which she replies, “I dunno.”