At one point during Inherent Vice, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) asks the proprietor of a psychiatric institution why one of his patients has a giant swastika tattooed on his face. He is deflected by the response that the symbol is not the one that found its fame with the Nazis, but instead the ancient East Asian representation of the universe. This shrouding of the truth and refusal to address the most pressing issue in the room speaks volumes for Inherent Vice on the whole, a fascinating story hidden away in a rolling fog of pot smoke and late-‘60s hippie paranoia. It’s funny, intriguing and Anderson’s most accessible work to date, despite the fact that it’s the first film based on the work of the infamously impenetrable Thomas Pynchon, remaining engaging even while it leaves its plot behind as Doc lurches from one mishap to the next.
Much of the aforementioned accessibility comes from our lead. Doc Sportello is Anderson’s first real ‘hero’, a fundamentally good man capable of acts of profound kindness thanks to his complete contentment with himself and his life. No matter what insanity is unfolding itself around him, there is no real internal conflict to Doc, and whilst he still has his flaws (the incessant consumption of all manner of drugs), it’s refreshing to see the lead in a Serious Film manage to hold our attention without any glaring personality defects. He is brought to life wonderfully by Phoenix, who absolutely throws himself into this role. As is his wont, he gets completely lost in Sportello, from his mannerisms to his voice, and it is exceedingly impressive that he finds room for so many emotional nuances and subtleties. The rest of the cast is, without exception, great (the casting here is note perfect), but the roster of supporting characters is so large, that none of them get the screen time to make the same impact as Phoenix.
All of these people are connected through a complex plot, involving kidnappings, conspiracies, and a Chinese drug smuggling ring. Multi-millionaire real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) has gone missing, and Doc is asked to find him by his ex-girlfriend/Mickey’s current girlfriend Shasta Fey (a great performance from newcomer Katherine Waterston). Meanwhile, the LAPD and FBI are both somehow involved, and Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is constantly on Doc’s back. All of these elements link to another of Doc’s cases (an HBO Doc Sportello weekly procedural would be amazing), the disappearance and faked death of Hope Harlingen’s (Jena Malone) sax-playing husband Coy (Owen Wilson). This all sounds deeply confusing, and to top it all off Doc is in a secret relationship with the DA, Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), but one of the key techniques employed by Anderson is to slightly abandon the plot if it ever threatens to become too complex. Whether this satisfies or infuriates you is up to personal taste, and I’m sure there’s a more complete story hidden on the cutting room floor. However, in allowing the plot to, every now and then, essentially work itself out, Anderson makes room for big laughs (Benicio del Toro is on fine form as Doc’s lawyer) and some very real, human moments.
The scope of Inherent Vice is not nearly as broad as The Master or even There Will Be Blood and it plays more like a caper than anything else, a ‘40s noir film set in the late ‘60s. There’s a timeless quality to the film, mixing as it does elements of Chinatown and The Big Lebowski, amongst many others. The free-wheeling spirit of California is captured beautifully, even as the hippie golden age comes crashing down around Doc’s head, and Joanna Newsom’s voiceover provides Inherent Vice with an old-school feeling that sometimes borders on the overly nostalgic.
Inherent Vice may not achieve the philosophical magnificence of Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, and it’s not quite blissed-out enough to rival The Big Lebowski as the perfect stoner movie, but as an introduction to the work of PTA, it could not be better. It’s his funniest movie, with the most likable lead he’s ever had, and any time something goes right for Doc it’s a genuinely pleasing experience. I’ve never seen a film with such a multi-layered story take its plot so lightly, but the brisk energy and sense of humour that this gives makes it absolutely worth it. With Joaquin Phoenix as reliably superb as ever it would be nearly impossible not to warm to Sportello, and the fact that I at no point questioned my rooting for Doc is a wonderful feat. It may just be the film that opens the door to challenging James Franco and Seth Rogen as the modern kings of the stoner comedy.