In the loosey-goosey world of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, everyone knows everybody, or they have a brother who does. The film feels lived in and Anderson throws us into the deep end, trusting us to figure out how to dog paddle through a series of disorienting plot lines and a parade of incoming and outgoing characters, a convivial wink to the complex tangles of more serious noir.
The film’s hero, private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a pothead beach-bum gumshoe whose office is in the backroom of an actual doctor’s office. He feels like a refugee from a detective show that never made it past pilot. Everyone in “Inherent Vice” is obsessed with television, by the way; at least twice characters refer to the dead as “having their series ended” and televisions are constantly blaring on in the background.
Phoenix plays Doc with an effortless cartoonishness as he dons various disguises to follow up on leads or, say, screams in terror at a photo of an ugly infant. Dismissed as a pothead or a hippie by figures of authority such as Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Doc is motivated by a genuine curiosity and his own scruples. Doc often refuses payment for his services, preferring instead to barter for information. Although he helps his femme-fatale ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to find her current flame, AWOL real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), Doc’s only out-and-out success in the film is selflessly freeing an agent provocateur from his obligations to both the feds and a shadowy drug syndicate so he can rejoin his wife and child. Doc’s a good guy, just cursed by poor impulse control and a perpetual doper’s haze.
Although Phoenix is the focus, “Inherent Vice” is handily Josh Brolin’s best performance since “No Country For Old Men,” and “Bigfoot” Bjornsen is a pretty fascinating character in his own right. His working relationship with Doc is bizarrely ambiguous, a begrudging respect between two men who clearly fucking hate each other. Bigfoot alternates between confiding in Doc and completely fucking him over. There’s clearly history here. Bjornsen wields force and authority like a weapon but also makes money on the side appearing as a pitiable extra on crappy cop drama “Adam-12” or donning an afro wig in a terrible real estate commercial. Brolin sells all this beautifully, a weirdo straight-man bully to Phoenix’s loveable loser PI. In one telling scene, Bigfoot eats plate after plate of pancakes at a Japanese restaurant, then declares that they aren’t as good as the kind his mother used to make but that he loves the respect they offer him at this establishment. “Respect,” as an ideal, is important to him.
With so many characters and sub-storylines to balance, “Inherent Vice” has less of a cast and more a series of increasingly weird guest stars, and we don’t really know anyone, save for Doc and Bigfoot.
Shasta, Doc’s ex and ostensibly the character who propels the plot forward, highlights a weakness with the film. We get a sense of her relationship with Doc through flashbacks narrated by Sortilège (played by Joanna Newsom, who acts as a sort of hippie Greek chorus throughout) but she’s opaque in her thoughts and feelings, a vehicle for Doc’s hang-ups.
Michael K. Williams pops up for a few minutes of the film’s two and half hours, Reese Witherspoon shows up to play Doc’s square assistant district-attorney girlfriend, Martin Short plays a sleazy dentist for a couple of enjoyable scenes. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a two-man show with Phoenix and Brolin taking turns tormenting each other.
“Inherent Vice” is one of those movies that just happens to you. It’s a film concerned with a search for answers that don’t come or are mostly disappointing and Anderson is more interested in how Doc gets there than what Doc figures out. Doc, and the audience, get glimpses of a cold war between the brutal LAPD and an aging radical movement but no firm answers, as if it’s all above our pay grade. “Inherent Vice” doesn’t offer up too many concrete final thoughts; it only imparts feelings. There’s a bummer, sunset inevitability to the film, and even as everything sort of works out all we’re left with is, appropriately, a vibe.