Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s trippy, trenchant satire, is very much a creature of Thomas Pynchon’s biting deconstruction of the final daze of peace, love and understanding that gives the film its inspiration and its name.
Joaquin Phoenix and the terrific acting ensemble that joins him in this pot-infused ’70s-era beach noir create such a good buzz you can almost get a contact high from watching. A sprawling cast is required for the many vices and various intrigues, with Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone and Martin Short as its core, plus Katherine Waterston, actor Sam’s daughter, as the pivotal femme fatale.
After exploring cult mentality along the Eastern Seaboard in The Master, Inherent Vice brings us back to Anderson’s favorite locale: steamy Southern California’s more unsavory sides. It would seem the writer/director intends to work through every layer. Starting with the San Fernando Valley’s porn industry in Boogie Nights (1997), he moved on to love, lust and the seamier side of game shows, again in the Valley, with Magnolia (1999), before circling back to the region’s early oil-boom days in There Will Be Blood (2007). Now he’s one toke over the line and knee-deep in vice.
Trying to pare back Pynchon without killing the joke was the challenge. Anderson has done a remarkable job of replicating the crazy kaleidoscope of crime, dope and raunch the novelist conjured. It is a densely detailed cultural polyglot of real estate machinations, Aryan Brotherhood bikers, dental scams, sex, drugs, dope smoking, detectives and dames. Don’t be fooled by the literary imprint; the intellectual underpinning is certainly there, but this is also a tawdry tale that earns its R rating.
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Phoenix, who starred in The Master, is once again Anderson’s main co-conspirator. His Doc Sportello is a Birkenstock-wearing, weed-dispensing private investigator in a thinly masked ’70s-era Manhattan Beach. Its surf culture, dive bars and weathered one-rooms by the month are still firmly entrenched, gentrification not yet an issue. The crafty crew — cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges — nail the period details. Nostalgia, like all other forms of sentiment, is never allowed to interfere.
The dame is Shasta Fey Hepworth (Waterston), a tall drink of water who happens to be Doc’s ex, or one of them. These days she’s the mistress of a local land-grabbing developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). It’s not all that clear whether Shasta’s dropped by Doc’s place for help or confession. Regardless, he gets her tale of woe. She’s been roped into a plot by Wolfmann’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boy toy to have Wolfmann committed to a high-end insane asylum, leaving them free to split his money.
What — Shasta wonders — does she owe Mickey? Does — Doc wonders — she love the guy? The issue of loyalty and love colliding with self-interest shapes the film and all the players to varying degrees. Complexities and complications are everywhere. Lives and lies overlap, as do the various vices.
Inherent Vice is Pynchon and Anderson at their funniest, loosest and most accessible. The cast seems to thoroughly enjoy being in on the joke. Maybe it’s all the weed.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon
Rated: R (drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, strong language, some violence)
Running time: 148 min.