If Inherent Vice were set in the 1940s, it would likely begin with its detective protagonist sitting at his desk, taking a swig of Jack Daniels, ogling the young woman entering his office and stating in a voice over, “I’ll never forget the day she walked into my life.” But since P.T. Anderson’s new film is set in 1970, awash in color and period accuracy, we meet our “hero,” Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) laying on his couch, ogling his girlfriend and high as a kite.
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel and featuring a cast as prestigious as the man directing them, this deadpan comedy/mystery is cool and very funny, despite a plot that’s nearly impossible to follow. I’ve seen the film twice, enjoyed it both times but still can’t follow who everyone is and how they’re all connected. Two of my favorite California-set mysteries, Chinatown and its underrated sequel The Two Jakes, both written by Robert Towne, have a similar issue: they’re engrossing and incredibly entertaining with performances you can’t take your eyes off. The problem is that if you can’t keep track of the character names and who’s portraying who, you’ll get lost quickly.
The central mystery involves a disappearance, though it quickly grows into something larger, unveiling a massive conspiracy and oodles of criminal activity. Sportello is persistent and sharp for a man constantly getting stoned. He surrounds himself with a colorful assortment of associates on both sides of the law. His best friend and occasional nemesis is a straight-arrow cop who’s also a TV actor. He goes by “Bigfoot” and is played by Josh Brolin, in a fantastic comic turn. The scene of Brolin ordering pancakes in a Japanese restaurant will likely be quoted for years to come. Sportello has an on-again-off-again girlfriend who’s a Deputy District Attorney. She’s played by Reese Witherspoon, who’s good but out of place and doesn’t reignite the chemistry she shared with Phoenix in Walk the Line.
Far better is Jena Malone, memorable in her one scene involving the origin of her fake dentures. Then there’s Martin Short, terrific in his 10-minute scene as an impossibly sleazy monster. Benicio Del Toro is wonderful as Sportello’s oddball lawyer and Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter), playing Sportello’s romantic obsession and the film’s central femme fatale, has the film’s most erotic scene.
It took two views for me to realize that the film’s narrator, played by Joanna Newsom, is meant to represent the hazy 1970 mindset of California as a whole. Her character drifts in and out of focus but we almost always hear her commentary.
Anderson’s direction is restrained here, knowing when to go in for a slow close-up and lean in on a great performance. Otherwise, the emphasis isn’t on style but atmosphere. The period setting recreates a time when everyone was afraid of Charles Manson, illegal drugs were as commonplace as casual sex and phrases like “ya dig” were a part of casual conversation. The film has the same laid back energy, loopy tone and stoner logic as The Big Lebowski, minus the psychedelic visuals.
The screenplay is overstuffed with hilarious one-liners but episodic, with moments that add flavor but don’t seem to add up to the whole. It’s hip but such a detached, dialogue-driven, convoluted and attitude-heavy mood piece, some may check out early. That’d be a shame for film lovers, as this picks up steam (and gusts of pot smoke), delivers one quotable line after another and offers a gallery of great actors in top form.
Phoenix does something special here, diving into a character both haunted and farcical. Brolin is playing a similarly goofy but tortured figure and shares many great moments with Phoenix. Every actor has opportunities to shine, though the absurd, increasingly dense screenplay doesn’t build to a fully satisfying payoff. Patient, attentive viewers willing to just go with it may dig it. Make no question, The Dude Still Abides.