Inherent Vice Is Groovy, Funny, and Strange

Photo: Wilson Webb/Warner Brothers

After two viewings, I still don’t know what Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice adds up to, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Why should a movie add up to anything? It’s not a theorem. Interstellar adds up to something, and it’s unintentionally hilarious. Inherent Vice, which is set in 1970 in a beach town south of L.A., is like a gorgeous stoner art object, and maybe you need to get baked to be on its dissonant, erratic wavelength. It’s groovy, distant, funny — funny-strange and funny-ha-ha. It’s drugged camp. It’s like nothing else.

Except maybe the novel, which is Thomas Pynchon’s contribution to the L.A. stoner private-eye genre, the highest (so to speak) achievements of which are on film: Robert Altman’s take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski. What they have in common is that their narratives unravel as they go along, although this one is never really raveled to begin with.

Its slurry rhythms are set by Joaquin Phoenix, one of America’s best and slurriest actors. He plays “Doc” Sportello, an ex-drug-dealer turned licensed hippie private-eye, and he twitches a lot under clumps of sideburn that look like sagebrush. The film could easily be taken as Doc’s pipe dream. He’s barely conscious when a vision appears in his anti-orderly beach bungalow: Shasta (Katherine Waterston), the willowy hippie chick whom he loved and who drifted off into the ether of the counterculture. She’s nervous, wonders if she was followed. She’s dating a Jewish real-estate mogul whose wife (and the wife’s boyfriend) has contacted her — not to drive her off but to bribe her into helping them put the mogul in the booby hatch. Already the geometry is bizarre, and the movie has barely started. Then the girl and mogul disappear — although this is the sort of movie where she might be dead or she might have flaked off because she needed more space. If she was ever there at all.

What matters is Doc loves her enough to rouse himself from his stupor and go to work, stumbling (sometimes literally) on corpses, neo-Nazi bikers, masseuses, drug-addled dentists, runaway rich girls, undercover police informants, and cops, so many cops. Foremost among them is a hardass, buzz-cut-wearing, civil-rights-violating policeman known affectionately as “Bigfoot” who moonlights as an actor. Josh Brolin plays him with deadpan genius. Bigfoot stews over not getting enough movie and TV offers and sucks on/chews chocolate-covered bananas. Occasionally he’ll stomp on Doc to get the anger out of his system. The two have a strange kind of infantile, mismatched-buddy thing going on. They’re toxic to each other — but they need each other to exist.

Anderson, his longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit, and production designer David Crank serve up a moody, stylized Left Coast of beach bungalows, stairways to nowhere, culverts to nowhere, highways to nowhere — a lot of beautiful nowheres. The beach town is saturated with color — Doc and Shasta are bathed in brick-red sunsets. In the world of “squares,” there’s little sign of nature (or humanity). Structures look temporary, out of scale in this flat, arid landscape. There are colors that suggest '50s Fiestaware that has festered. Jonny Greenwood’s score is a series of neoclassical exhalations with the occasional noodling theremin: unresolved, dislocating. Inherent Vice depicts an especially unstable era in the life of Southern California, when the air is starting to leak out of the whoopee cushion that is the counterculture, leaving paranoid bad vibes and developers ready to move in and build condos. Most of Anderson’s films explore the dynamics of family and the impact — for better or worse — of strong fathers. There is no father figure here, no guiding authority. This is a free-floating, scrambled, centerless mode of being.

Characters drift across the screen like flakes of hippie dandruff. Anderson shoots their scenes with Doc (who’s in every scene) in long takes, letting the actors find their own rhythms. Every encounter with Shasta is hypnotically slow. Waterston (a daughter of Sam) is so abstracted that she’s like a spirit from another realm, but with a tawny, long-limbed body that wraps around Doc, drawing him in like a nymph — or a succubus.

Benicio del Toro is Doc’s lawyer, who’s serious, marginally competent, and as inexplicable as everyone else. Jena Malone has an adorably poignant scene as the wife of a supposedly O.D.’ed surf-band sax player who says of their first encounter, “We didn’t meet cute, we met sordid.” The story she tells raises the bar for kinky yeccchhhh. Reese Witherspoon with a lacquered hair-helmet shows up as a straitlaced assistant D.A. improbably sleeping with Doc, their vibe different enough from the one they had in Walk the Line to give you the warm-and-fuzzies about actors and their chameleon powers. Martin Short sidles onto the screen in a purple suit as a coked-up, sleazeball dentist; he has his own inimitable loopy rhythms. Singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom plays Doc’s friend and does twittery voice-overs from Pynchon’s book that help — somewhat — to orient us. There are so many wonderful actors: Michael K. Williams, Owen Wilson, Hong Chau, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Jeanie Berlin, Martin Donovan, Jefferson Mays ...

But this isn’t really an “ensemble movie” in the sense of Anderson’s Boogie Nights or Magnolia. It’s Joaquin Phoenix plus guest-stars. Characters remark that Doc reeks, but the information is redundant: Neither water nor soap look to have touched him in eons. (The Method-y Phoenix might well have eschewed showering for the duration of the shoot; he is that dedicated.) He throws away lines, plays with them, mutters to himself like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, but makes Gould sound like Richard Burton: What the fuck is Phoenix saying half the time? Really, if Phoenix weren’t such a brilliant, witty, emotionally true presence, he’d be intolerable.

As a mystery, the film of Inherent Vice is less coherent than Pynchon’s novel, no mean feat. It’s spotty, it has no shape, it never jells. I wish it were a little more enjoyable — an arty coldness has seeped into Anderson’s filmmaking since the heady days of Magnolia, and I liked it better when it was more down-to-earth. But I can live with his self-indulgence when there’s such a capacious self to indulge. He’s making his own rules, designing his own space — even his own air. Whatever you say about him, he goes to your head.