A mystery without a real mystery – more of an escalating series of comedic and dramatic mishaps – Paul Thomas Anderson’s trippy, groovy, and slyly amusing adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice combines the writer and director’s idiosyncratic tendencies with a new found sense of playfulness. It’s still a resolutely formalist effort from the man behind There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Boogie Nights, but the structure here is formed more by the already-in-place language of Pynchon rather than the filmmaker. It’s probably the most difficult film the auteur has ever attempted, but bearing a looseness and charm that he hasn’t displayed since Punch Drunk Love. If Boyhood is the best film of the year because it was the most ambitious gambit of the year as a whole, Inherent Vice might be the best overall film.
Stoner gumshoe Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is shaken from his hop-head haze by the arrival of a spooked ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston). She’s acting paranoid and overly cautious; somehow caught up in an elaborate conspiracy to kidnap a local real estate baron (Eric Roberts). His interest piqued, Doc stumbles into a world of tax cheating dentists (led by a coked up Martin Short), jazz musicians turned snitches (Owen Wilson), insane teens (Sasha Pieterse), and a bevy of assorted drug dealers while running afoul of a hardboiled cop (Josh Brolin) who really wants to be an actor and the FBI. What little help he gets comes from his pseudo-girlfriend-slash-assistant-DA (Reese Witherspoon) and his somewhat incompetent legal representation (Benicio Del Toro), who really only knows maritime law, but that turns out to be handy.
Pynchon’s material demands complete and undivided attention. Even though the story adds up by the end and makes perfect sense, it’s all shrouded in a haze that has to be cut through for any of it to make a lick of sense. For those willing to do the work – Anderson included – the results are almost extra sensory in their impact, even when the film’s inciting incident gets wrapped up pretty easily before the film actually ends. It’s a mystery that leads to different discoveries and side quests for the main character. It’s free-wheeling and boasting an abundance of the dying hippie spirit, yet it’s remarkably well contained.
Anderson feels reenergized by the potential to make an outright period piece farce after a pair of desperately serious, but no less valid films. It’s like watching a master chess player goof around and try something different, not even caring that he might lose but simply having fun with the form. Anderson, thanks to sticking closely enough to Pynchon’s long-thought-unfilmable prose, decides to cut loose. He has a handle on the material and an understanding of where it needs to go, but there’s a real democratic feel to his latest effort. Anderson simply provides the roof, the structure, and the beats, but he’s allowing his collaborators the room to largely do what they want. It takes a true filmmaking talent like Anderson to allow this kind of collaboration without the film coming unglued or out of control. Then again, the material is already out of control by nature, so maybe it’s just the case of a filmmaker being the perfect fit for the story.
Led by Phoenix’s heretofore untapped potential for physical comedy (watching him take a hit or a pratfall is consistently hilarious), Brolin’s almost bipolar, conflicted, and orally fixated flat foot, Johnny Greenwood’s appropriate surf-rock-meets-TV-pilot score, and cinematography from Robert Elswit and editing from Leslie Jones that makes sure every punchline and visual gag hits the mark, Anderson doesn’t really have to do much to make the film work. Everything about the material falls into place as it should, and Anderson has handpicked all the right people for the job. It’s the rare example of a high minded, high concept cerebral mindfuck that actually seems fun to make. None of the characters are capable of thinking too much – even Doc can’t keep everything straight – so Anderson never stresses the particulars. It’s the most confident film about slackers since the Coens made The Big Lebowski.
Much like any of Anderson’s previous efforts, Inherent Vice is the kind of final product where any individual scene, moment, or performance could launch an hour long discussion in and of itself. Yet since the material here is one of a convoluted mystery, I find myself hesitant to get into specifics. I got it the first time just fine, but second viewings will probably be necessary for most to have a fuller appreciation. Just let it wash over you, and even if it still doesn’t make sense the first time, you’ll still probably like what you’ve seen.