Doc Sportello, the scraggly, stoned hero of Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie Inherent Vice, finds himself in trouble the way most noir heroes do. There's a girl, and she says she needs help, and he's willing to give it, even though he knows better.
Doc is a private eye living where all great private eyes do, in Southern California, but he's no cool, cynical Humphrey Bogart type. He's got more in common with the fumbling, postmodern detectives of The Big Lebowski and The Long Goodbye, who get entangled in crimes rather than unravel them. He's more hippie than hard-boiled, lurching through the movie, which is adapted from Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name. As played by Joaquin Phoenix, sporting an untamed tousle of hair and muttonchops, Doc is the kind of guy who perpetually peers blearily out from under droopy eyelids. It's 1970, and the world he's looking at has gone a little nuts, so the decision to not see it clearly doesn't seem like such a bad one.
Anderson's last two movies were sweeping, enigmatic epics — The Master and There Will Be Blood, movies that burn themselves into your brain and that feel like they were made in a new, strange sort of cinematic language. Inherent Vice isn't another one of those. It's a daffier venture, like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, looser and friendlier, but not easier to dismiss. It's a movie full of convoluted conspiracies and dumb jokes, but there's a keen sense of concern underneath the surface that the drugs and the shenanigans will run out, and the characters will be caught by harsh, sober reality and all the bad things it contains.
The plot is an insane muddle you'd have to be high to understand, though that doesn't seem to help Doc all that much. It starts with Doc's ex Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), who's gotten involved in with a married real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She says that Mickey's wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and Sloane's lover have something nefarious planned for Mickey, and tried to get her involved. Shasta's got "danger" written all over her, but she's Doc's old lady, and he can't turn her away.
Then, Mickey goes missing, and so does Shasta, and a civil rights-abusing, flat-topped cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen (a scene-stealing Josh Brolin) starts breathing down Doc's neck. The sprawling cast also includes Reese Witherspoon as Doc's sometimes girlfriend, Owen Wilson as a tenor saxophonist on the run, Benicio Del Toro as Doc's maritime lawyer friend, Jena Malone as a recovering junkie, Martin Short as a coke-snorting nutcase, musician Joanna Newsom as Doc's gal pal, who narrates the affair, and more familiar faces who wander in for a scene or two and then disappear.
Inherent Vice also involves some unappealing development deals, Aryan bikers, professional snitches, sketchy massage parlors, erotic silk ties, and an organization called the Golden Fang that may have something to do with heroin smuggling and maybe also with dentistry. The constant connections Doc discovers between these elements strikes him as more alarming than affirming — "PARANOIA ALERT," he scrawls helpfully in his notebook. "NOT HALLUCINATING."
Inherent Vice is, at 148 minutes, long, and its more languidly paced than its irresistible trailer would suggest. Its jokes are often drolly visual — the party pizza scene is shot like a longhairs' Last Supper, there's a "Pussy Menu" on display at the poorly concealed brothel, and there's also the fellatio-esque way that Bigfoot eats his favorite snack of frozen bananas. Phoenix, once again terrific, is the movie's greatest comedic gift, and he lets himself be as intensely weird as he can be. Doc's terrible at being sneaky (he creeps around like a cartoon) or hiding his reactions, and he's often a few beats behind, reacting rather than driving the story, even with the assistance of his "doper's ESP." He's prone to do things like throw himself on the hood of a police car. Is it a preemptive effort, before Bigfoot could do it himself, or a flubbed attempt to get away? Doc might not know himself.
And there's some sadness lurking at the edges of the haze in which Doc keeps himself, with regard to the girl who got away (who might not be the girl he thought he knew anyway), and because maybe the '60s are slipping past into something darker and less optimistic. But Doc (who does get asked "what's up," and more than once) gamely tries to figure out the right thing to do in an amusingly incomprehensible landscape.
You have to let yourself sink into Inherent Vice (which opens in limited theaters on Dec. 12), and surrender to it the way Doc does the case into which he's fallen. It's shaggy, eccentric, and sometimes hilarious, but it has a tender heart. It's the sort of movie that can clearly echo one of the most moving scenes in The Master, but frame it as a absurd, funny showdown involving tears and marijuana that's still, somehow, poignant. It's a stoner noir you'll want to watch again as soon as the credits roll — though maybe with a break for some munchies first.