I wish I could declare that Inherent Vice is a hip, hazy portrait of the transition period between the social upheaval of the 1960s and the rise of cultural and political conservatism in the 1980s. I would have liked to examine how writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's latter-day film noir captures the flashpoint of an atrophying counterculture and the institutions spawned to suppress or profit from it.
But even as a fan of Anderson's oeuvre, I can't heap such hosannas on his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 gonzo novel. Named after a built-in defect that leads to deterioration (the term comes from library science), Inherent Vice falls apart. Fundamentally—and fatally—it doesn't make any damn sense.
Set in 1970 in the fictional Gordita Beach, California, this mind-trip opens with Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a pothead private eye, receiving a surprise visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She asks Doc to look into a purported plot to blackmail her new boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), being perpetrated by Mickey's socialite wife and her paramour.
There's a passing moment during the film's first third that draws parallels between Mickey supplanting an African-American neighborhood for his new residential development and the historical displacement of Mexicans to build Dodger Stadium and American Indians to build The Music Center in Bunker Hill. These references, along with sidelong swipes at the policies of Governor Reagan and President Nixon, momentarily position the film in the lineage of Chinatown, another modern noir set in California's classist power structure.
Alas, what follows is a dizzying cavalcade of eclectic characters orbiting through an incomprehensible storyline. At the irregular center is LAPD Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a crew-cut ramrod with a penchant for phallic popsicles and busting hippies. There are flesh peddlers, neo-Nazi bodyguards, ex-Black Panthers and duplicitous G-Men. There's a heroin-addicted saxophonist (Owen Wilson) who might also be an undercover federal snitch, a junior prosecutor who moonlights as Doc's booty call (Reese Witherspoon) and Doc's daffy but savvy attorney friend (Benicio del Toro). And "The Golden Fang," headed by the coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short, without nearly enough screen time), might be a professional association of dentists, a drug distribution front, or both.
Inherent Vice is like Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep if it were directed by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. But Anderson's comedic flourishes clash with an overarching melancholy mood. And while Hawks' adaptation of Raymond Chandler is cleverly convoluted, Inherent Vice is pretentious and inscrutable, down to repeated passages of intentionally incoherent dialogue. In trying to convey the hallucinogenic prism of its half-baked protagonist, the film comes off like a half-remembered dream.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Paranoid celluloid."