It’s been twelve years since Paul Thomas Anderson made a comedy. Those years have not been incredibly fruitful, yielding only 2007’s There Will Be Blood and 2012’s The Master, but those two films are of such stirring, titanic quality and tone that it can be possible to forget for a moment that this is the man who also gave us films like Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights. Surely, after a decade of such cinematic heaviness, it would make sense for PTA to want to lighten the load a bit. But of course, the man would not be content simply making some slapstick farce, so in his return to comedy he has lashed himself together with noted recluse and dense novelist Thomas Pynchon, choosing to adapt his end of the hippie generation stoner opus Inherent Vice. It marks the first time a Pynchon work has ever been adapted for the screen, as well as arguably the first time Anderson has actively filmed an adaptation (There Will Be Blood was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, but only barely).
To attempt to describe the sprawling plot of Inherent Vice is folly, but its basics are relatively straightforward. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private detective and perpetual stoner living on Gordita Beach in Los Angeles circa 1970. His old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) comes calling one day, asking him to help her new boyfriend, a real estate magnate targeted by his wife and her boyfriend to be forcefully committed in order to embezzle his prodigious wealth. Additionally, he has been hired by a recovering heroin addict Hope (Jena Malone) to help find her husband Coy (Owen Wilson), reportedly died of an overdose, though she believes he is still out there somewhere. The plot thickens considerably from there, as Doc is trailed at all times by a rival cop, square and maniac named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), who wastes no time getting Doc framed for murder.
Inherent Vice is a film that is both all about its plot and not at all concerned with it at the same time. This is not to say Anderson does the plot injustice, but simply that more often than not, the vibe of the film and the performances of the actors are what matters, not the specifics of who did what to who and when. As a noir detective story with a sprawling plot and extensive cast of characters, it can at times be willfully obtuse, but considering the addled and often substantially altered mind of its protagonist, the confusion in response to the information dump feels right in its own way. Doc is right there with the audience, grasping at straws attempting to figure out how everyone he comes across seems to be connected to Mickey Wolfman and the mysterious Golden Fang. Phoenix is diametrically opposed to his last collaboration with Anderson, trading Freddie Quell’s suicidal alcoholism and constant pained sneer for Doc’s penchant for marijuana and bemused vocalizations. It is exceedingly rare to get a performance like this from Phoenix (perhaps Her is close, but that is still a notably cerebral turn), laid-back and relaxed and simply reacting to everything around him. His character feels akin to Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski or Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (there is quite a bit of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas here, really), but it does not feel borrowed or slapped together. Phoenix continues to be one of the most magnetic screen presences working today, and how he works his way through Inherent Vice makes sure it never falls into the abyss of overplotting.
Just as magnetic in this film is Josh Brolin, with his austere suit and aggressive military haircut, representing the squares of the world who can never understand the hippie way of life. Brolin is a force, wickedly funny and energetic. A film like this, with its plot and characters, is more than capable of losing its momentum, and whenever that seems to happen, here comes Brolin marauding onto the screen to bring it back to life. He’s the best of the cast, though credit should also be extended to Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston and Martin Short; a cast of this size means many are reduced to glorified cameos (Malone and Michael Kenneth Williams only get one real scene each, for example), but for the most part everyone takes advantage of the screen time they have.
Technically, Inherent Vice looks resplendent in 35 mm as shot by Anderson’s favored cinematographer Robert Elswit. The Master and There Will Be Blood were stately affairs, with their long tracking shots, and Anderson, Elswit and editor Leslie Jones are intelligent enough to know that this is not those sorts of films, and gives the film a much different feel. Jonny Greenwood also changes things up a bit for his third collaboration with Anderson, relying less on the soundscapes he used in There Will Be Blood and The Master and going for something more akin to a traditional score, influenced by the surf rock of the era. It feels more akin to Boogie Nights, which is surely the closest analogue in Anderson’s canon in story design and tone, and it’s good to know he still has that range in him when he needs it.
There is, however, something that feels like it’s missing from Inherent Vice. It’s nearly impossible to put a finger on exactly what it is; every individual aspect of the film is impressive at the very least, but the film never coalesces into something meaningful. It is possible that despite the fact that its plot is honestly not that important (this is a film much more intrigued by thematic elements and creating a specific mood, both of which it does very well), it still determines the skeleton of the picture, and there are times especially in the second act that it does tend to lose itself a bit as these random characters show up for one scene to give Doc some information, only to fade away into the ether. It suffers from the same problems as its spiritual brother, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (both are chiefly concerned with the death of the free love era of the 60’s); both feature individual scenes and moments of stirring quality, but both also can never seem to make those individual scenes add up into a completely satisfying whole. Inherent Vice is a better film than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and its individual parts are so strong that they elevate the whole even as it lags behind the proceedings. It is possible that this is one of the worst of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. But that can be nothing but a compliment, as if a film as good as Inherent Vice is the worst of a director’s career, that director has very little to worry about indeed.