Okay. I've written over 1500 words on this flick, so I should probably warn you in advance that they may not contain anything useful or insightful. What I'm about to give you are my feelings on a movie that I'm not even close to finished with; a film I know I'm going to have to watch again (and again?) before I'm able decide what it is, exactly, and how I feel about it. So often, we watch movies, contemplate them, “figure them out” and then set them aside like completed puzzles. Inherent Vice feels like a puzzle that was never meant to be completed. All of the pieces are there, but some of them are hidden somewhere outside the box and other pieces from other puzzles have been thrown into the mix. This causes confusion when certain pieces don't match the way they should, and elation when pieces that shouldn't match join forces to create something beautiful.
I feel like I shouldn't even attempt a coherent description of the story, but let's do what we can. The year is 1970, and the place is Gordita Beach (which is fictional), Los Angeles (which is not). Doc (Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator) is a private investigator and a hippie stoner, and he seems to devote roughly equal time to pursuing both sides of his life. He used to be in a relationship with a girl named Shasta (Katherine Waterston, Michael Clayton), but she left him long ago. Now he pals around with a gal named Sortilege (musician Joanna Newsom, who also narrates the film) and occasionally sleeps with a Deputy DA named Penny (Reese Witherspoon, Wild), though he still thinks of himself as single, more or less.
One day, Shasta returns and tells Doc that she's currently in a relationship with a wealthy real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, The Dark Knight), and that she wants Doc to help her prevent Mickey's wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas, The World is Not Enough) and Sloane's lover (Riggs Warbling, Heathens and Thieves) from carrying out a plot to have Mickey kidnapped and committed to a mental institution. Doc reluctantly agrees to investigate the case. Meanwhile, former meth addict Hope Harlington (Jena Malone, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) also hires Doc to find her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson, The Darjeeling Limited), a saxophone player who has gotten himself involved with two or three of the wrong crowds.
Doc's investigation of both cases leads him into the path of many people, including a Black Panther (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire), a coke-addled dentist (Martin Short, Saturday Night Live), a marine lawyer (Benecio Del Toro, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), an enthusiastic prostitute (Hong Chau, Treme) and numerous white supremacists. Most often, his investigation leads him directly into the path of police detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men), a surly, mean-spirited guy who despises hippies (and most people, really, but hippies in particular) with a burning passion. He abuses Doc (verbally and/or physically) on multiple occasions, but also begrudgingly values Doc's ability to churn up information. The two have something resembling a professional friendship, though it's not particularly professional or friendly.
The plot zigs, zags and loops around in the classic detective story tradition, asking us to keep up with characters we haven't seen yet and significant plot developments presented as mumbled offhand comments. Doc has a joint in his hand roughly as often as The Dude did in The Big Lebowski (a film this one casually resembles during its friskier, funnier moments), and one of the film's many playful ironies is that Doc's drug-addled brain interferes so directly with his profession as a detective. His job involves keeping a lot of complicated details straight, but he has a tendency to forget half of what he learns (though to his credit, he makes an effort to sort out the real from the imagined by writing down notes like “NOT A HALLUCINATION”). Doc stumbles through the movie in a stoned haze, and he often seems as confused as we are (maybe moreso) when he's attempting to figure out what's happening and why. The movie seems to do its level best not to just capture Doc but to actually make us feel the way he feels. Lacking the ability to roll us a joint before the movie begins, director Paul Thomas Anderson goes the extra mile and makes a movie that plays like the sort of film stoners describe when they talk about experiencing a beloved classic while high. I doubled over with laughter, found myself awestruck by moments of mysterious beauty, felt briefly overwhelmed by deep sadness, and then... wait, what's happening, again?
The film Inherent Vice most resembles is Robert Altman's 1973 gem The Long Goodbye, a brilliant, hilarious, melancholy riff on the film noir genre which cast Elliot Gould as a perpetually baffled version of Philip Marlowe. Altman has long been a cinematic hero of Anderson's, and some of his ensemble-driven early works (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) were frequently compared to Altman flicks like Nashville and Short Cuts, but Inherent Vice is easily the closest Anderson has come to actually capturing the shaggy magic of a great Altman flick. It's not sloppy, exactly, but it has a shambling spontaneity which causes it to stand in sharp contrast to the Kubrickian precision of Anderson's previous two efforts (There Will Be Blood and The Master). Like the best Altman films, this one offers countless great moments that feel captured, not staged (despite the fact that it is, by all accounts, a remarkably faithful adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel it's based on). Because Anderson doesn't call attention to his direction with overelaborate camera angles or stylish outbursts, you're caught off guard when an ordinary scene suddenly offers a fleeting tableau of The Last Supper, or when you realize that a shot has remained unbroken for ten minutes.
There are so many things lurking below the surface of the movie, but it's almost impossible to dig into them after a single viewing due to the sheer volume of things to focus on right there on the surface. Anderson isn't just telling a knotty, pot-laced detective story, he's offering a fascinating snapshot of America's conflicted identity (circa 1970 in particular, circa now in general). There's a lovely yin/yang metaphor for our ideologically divided nation in the love/hate relationship between Doc and Bigfoot. Sometimes they secretly pity each other, sometimes they secretly envy each other and they often secretly need each other. In interviews, Anderson has also indicated that he made an effort to capture Pynchon's distinctively challenging brand of storytelling via cinema, tapping into the depths of not only Inherent Vice but the reclusive author's entire body of work (an element admittedly lost on a philistine like yours truly, who has repeatedly tried and failed to wrap his mind around Gravity's Rainbow).
There's clearly even more than this to deal with, however, and any attempt to engage it at this point would be an exercise in insincerity on my part. Admittedly, Anderson's films rarely yield their secrets right away. Magnolia has continued to reveal its endless depths with repeat viewings. I didn't grasp the central themes of There Will Be Blood until a wise friend explicitly pointed them out to me. A second viewing of The Master brought an intensely moving clarity to its ideas that I had sensed rather fuzzily the first time around. I honestly don't know what repeat viewings of Inherent Vice will yield, but history indicates that they will indeed yield something.
Let me go back to what I actually do know. I know that the film is often wildly funny in a wide variety of different ways, rarely moreso than when Doc observes Bigfoot eating a chocolate-covered frozen banana. I know that Phoenix is a delight as Doc, a beautiful tragedy of a man eternally struggling to sort through his muddled memories, questionable instincts and buried feelings. I know that Brolin has never been better than he is here, masterfully capturing the savagery, absurdity and insecurity of his character. I know that every member of the supporting cast seems precisely right, and that even bit players who are only given two minutes of screen time find a way to make their characters feel distinctive and essential. I know that I love the soundtrack, which makes room for Sam Cooke, Neil Young and a Jonny Greenwood score that seems to conjure the ghosts of many older scores (particularly Bernard Herrmann's work on Vertigo) and filter them through Greenwood's own distinctive voice. I know that there are moments of startling emotional depth, particularly a sentimental conclusion to a prominent subplot and the final scene between Doc and Bigfoot (hilarious and heartbreaking in roughly equal measure). I know that Anderson seems to be able to make just about any sort of movie he wants to, and that the shift from The Master to this film is nearly as startling as the shift from Punch-Drunk Love to There Will Be Blood. I know that I've been thinking about the movie non-stop in the 24 hours that have passed since I saw it. Most of all, I know that I can't wait to see it again – to revel in its countless pleasures, investigate its many mysteries and spend more time with its diverse collection of wonderful, terrible people. I don't what it is, man, but it's groovy and I dig it.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 148 minutes
Release Year: 2014