Private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) navigates a psychedelic world of surfers, stoners and cops to solve the case when his ex-lover mysteriously comes back into his life.
Short of studying Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” novel like a graduate student, you’re probably not going to be able to take it all in one viewing. That’s part of its charm, though; it’s dense, thick, compressed and rarely lets up for air. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation breathes life and a smoky hangout vibe to an overwhelming text; this isn’t a movie that is committed to being coherent or plot focused or even sensical, and that choice along with many other choices made by the actors in the film create a world that is such a vibrant and thrilling place.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private detective living in a California beach community, where he spends his days getting high, watching TV and dining on the finest pizzas.
A visit from an old lover, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), gets Doc on a whirlwind of a case involving lowlifes, high authorities and everything in between, while also rekindling old feelings inside himself. Shasta’s current beau, rich real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann, has a wife who may be plotting to commit him to a mental hospital. When Mickey and Shasta both disappear, Doc navigates through a haze of smoke and a seedy underworld to solve the case.
Summing the movie up this way doesn’t begin to say anything about what this film is or what it’s even about because it’s about everything and nothing. Doc meanders and mumbles and smokes his way through ridiculous scenarios and fever dream-like machinations that are treated with the utmost gravitas and poise. Josh Brolin plays a surly, macho straight cop who loves frozen chocolate bananas and kicking Doc’s ass. Joanna Newsom plays a wafting, fairy-like hippie comrade who narrates the film like she just came over to eat your leftovers and tell you about her crazy night. Owen Wilson is so many things to this movie that it isn’t even right for me to talk about his character and Reese Witherspoon is like a grown up Tracy Flick who went back in time and became a DA with an affinity for getting her own buzz on when she’s not on the clock.
What I can say for sure about the experience of watching this film is that it is a freewheeling story that drifts, wavers, blends and dissipates in the way that the 60s did when the era of free love began to come to an end and the Charles Manson massacre sort of changed everything for certain kind of people in a specific generation.
It is a film about conspiracies and the idea that everyone is in cahoots with one another and that you never really get to the bottom of anything and solve things, you just do your best to get your own piece of mind. It is also a film about the “one that got away” and how feelings sometimes never go away, they just hang around and sprout up at any given moment.
“Inherent Vice” is a complete mess; a sporadic, slapstick circus that you will likely not get a grip on the first time around. Instead, the best thing to do is to let the movie wash over you and enjoy hanging out with its goofballs and miscreants: they’re always looking for a good time.
Inherent Vice opens today in select theaters.