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 a life and a smokey 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: 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 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. This is a movie that 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.
The best scene for me is the Ouija board scene: Doc and Shasta have kicked their weed habit and are desperate for any distraction. They end up playing with a Ouija board which leads them to a phone number. When they call the number they get an address and, In an extended one shot, Shasta and Doc are running in the rain only to discover that the address leads to an empty lot. It doesn’t matter though, they find cover and hold each in the doorway of the building next door; forgetting all about the stress of kicking their drug habit and the slow disintegration of their relationship.
This moment is the essence of the whole film: a pervading love that never really goes away even though the good times have past and change is all around. The film is packed with gags and jokes and cutting moments of twisted sentimentality that it all feels like an incoherent mess. It is an incoherent mess though, but that’s how things (relationships, eras, mysteries) really do tend to end; it’s only when the history is being written do we smoothen everything out and turn it into a story deemed worthy of telling.
This is the first Anderson film that I felt never really belonged to him; this feels like Pynchon through and through, which makes for a different feeling than most PTA films leave you with. At the same time, it seems like it took Pynchon to get PTA out of this new trajectory for his career that involved extremely serious yet puzzling exposes on subjects like capitalism and religion. Inherent Vice was a reminder that PTA is still fun but also still kind of a kook; a kook that made a film that doesn’t try to make sense of the ridiculousness of everything happening in it, we’d be wise to do the same.