The Absurdist Spacecraft of ‘Inherent Vice’

If “The Big Lebowski” is the ultimate movie about stoners, “Inherent Vice” is the ultimate stoned movie. It’s nearly impossible to watch this surprisingly faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel without feeling high ourselves. But dig it, man: Resistance to the film’s addled charms is futile. This is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s most lavishly light-footed work since 1997’s “Boogie Nights.”

Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, a private eye with a heart of Hawaiian Gold, and it’s a role he was born to play (though Joaquin seems born to play every one of his roles, doesn’t he?). Decked out in John Lennon shades and muttonchops to make the Founding Fathers weep, waddling in a pelvis-first slouch with feet splayed in Huaraches, mumbling in a drug-fueled burr, scribbling inanities like NOT hallucinating in his reporter’s notebook, and forever “rooting through the city dump that is his memory,” Doc is the love child of Doctor Teeth and 1960s-era Elliott Gould whom we didn’t know we were seeking. He doesn’t really know who he’s seeking, either – which, though an admittedly odd quality in a detective, is perfectly in keeping with this shaggy spaceship of a mystery.

We can tell an awful lot about a culture by the kind of mysteries it spawns. The Brits produce stylish, starchy crime stories; the Swedes, expertly constructed thrillers investigated by existentialists masquerading as stoics. In the mid-twentieth century, that apex of American machismom, the United States produced a veritable glut of hard-boiled detectives dangling cigarettes, staccato quips, and long-legged dames. So it makes sense that this film set in a 1970 Southern California surfer town is all about sweetwater paranoia and the fuzziest of logic. In the wake of the Manson Family murders and the civil unrest of the 1960s, no one, especially in SoCal, knew which end was up, let alone who to believe.

Anderson, a director who’s never shied from big-scale what-the-fuckery (see: “Magnolia”), vibes with this moment so well that he doesn’t need to overplay his hand. He forgoes the pitfalls of voiceover narration by handing passages of exposition to Joanna Newsom, who shines as an astrologically inclined estrogenius, and he eschews the normal signifiers of the Sixties (lovebeads and Woodstock tracks) for deeply saturated colors and an original, wonderfully meandering soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood. You know: driving percussion, electric piano, purple-carpeted walls, and a lot of dirty bare feet. The few characters who wear lace-up shoes stand out like the squares they are; Doc’s chief nemesis (Josh Brolin), a meathead of a “renaissance cop” with a SAG card and an “evil shit twinkle in his eye,” is even called Bigfoot.

That’s the thing about Doc. He’s a card-carrying private investigator with a habit of running into trouble with the law. (It’s just one of his habits, really.) And because no one knows what end is up, local authorities and the FBI still tap him for information – even shtup him occasionally. Doc’s part-time squeeze is Deputy D.A. Penny, played by Reese Witherspoon in a matronly updo and a bulldog expression that looks so natural it’s as if we’re looking at the Ghost of Christmas Future. But even if Penny and Doc are kicking it, they don’t trust each other. Doc knows Penny’s allegiances lie with the Feds, and Penny knows Doc carries a torch for his ex-old lady, Shasta (newcomer Katherine Waterston; picture “Drugstore Cowboy”-era Kelly Lynch with a hefty dose of Janis Joplin). Everyone knows Shasta is Doc’s sun and moon, actually; she triggers the whole story when she puts him on the trail of her current lover, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a “Jew who wants to be a Nazi.” Shasta suspects that Mickey’s wife and her lover (cum spiritual advisor; quell 1970!) have stowed him in a mental health hospital in a scheme to nab his mogul money.

Doc, who doubles as a sort of psychedelic priest for his community (albeit one with a healthy interest in the fairer sex), takes on the case despite his conflict of interest. Soon enough he runs into recently released convict Tariq (Michael K. Williams), who’s seeking a bodyguard of Mickey’s who owes him money. Which leads Doc to a flower child sex parlor, which puts him in Bigfoot’s custody, which brings him to recovering junkie Heather (Jena Malone sporting fake chompers that rival Jonah Hill’s in last year’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”). She doesn’t buy the story that her jazz musician husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), died of an overdose, and it turns out she’s right. Coy is lurking about, Lazarus-style, as an undercover operative who’s a little too entrenched in the Golden Fang crime organization in which he was planted and in which Mickey’s also ensnared. Also in this grab bag of live-action hippie Muppets: a Dentist Feelgood (Martin Short, glorious in a violet velvet suit), a marine lawyer who doubles as Doc’s sidekick (Benicio Del Toro, the perfect foil on any trip), a high-society daffodil who receives guests in a tiny veiled hat and a tinier bathing suit (Serena Scott Thomas), and Maya Rudolph as a receptionist/groovy pseudo-nurse. And so it goes.

No one’s going to pretend that “Inherent Vice” is intelligible (even its title is obtuse), and I don’t think we should. At the heart of this parade of beautiful weirdos isn’t a quest for meaning but a quest for connection. Yet here’s a film that’s so comfortable with its bramble of loneliness that watching it is like settling into a shabby, overstuffed armchair; we judge the mess before surrendering to its cushions. Like Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” this affable paean to absurdism will be revered in years to come no matter the hostility it’s bound to engender now.

This review was originally published in Word and Film.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy