Its 1970 Los Angeles and things aren’t too groovy when the sudden mysterious departure of ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) spurs herbally-enhanced P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) to begin investigating his old lover’s current boyfriend, a powerful property magnate with links to a far right group masking as a security team. When the subject of his surveillance himself disappears, Sportello is drawn deeper into a convoluted kidnapping plot and his misadventures bring him into contact with a number of colourful characters, including old nemesis Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a deeply conservative, borderline fascist detective who moonlights as a TV show bit-part player and hammy infomercial host.
Pynchon’s work has often been cited as a notoriously difficult nut to crack cinematically, and although Inherent Vice is his most accessible novel, there’s still an abstruseness which Anderson has decided to embrace and run with rather than attempting to simplify and risk diluting in the process. The results on screen will undoubtedly perplex and may necessitate a return trip for some. It certainly isn’t the easiest film to categorise. It’s an absurdist thriller with elements of noir, boisterous comedy and even some gentle satirical prods (members of the LA police having a relaxed pool-side BBQ during a sting; the sending up of that Californian lifestyle obsession/ritual). It’s Anderson’s narrative swagger and his loving attention to detail which anchor the film, bringing all these disparate elements together.
It’s also great to see him working with an ensemble, again. Adding to his recent assortment of richly-textured screen characters, Phoenix is really terrific here, giving a wonderfully anarchic turn whilst bringing an almost taciturn child-like observation to the baffling developments which continue to engulf him. Like Jeff Bridges’ personification of The Dude, he does a delicate dance with the character keeping him from tipping into stoner savant caricature and ensuring he remains a believable and likable creation. Special mention also goes out to the flat-topped Brolin (robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and Waterston, who balances wide-eyed innocence with a sly sexuality. One scene in particular between her and Phoenix positively crackles with wild eroticism.
Anderson is a little self indulgent with the running time here, which is up there with both There Will Be Blood and The Master, but this is a minor issue. Shot in sun-bleach, faded 35mm stock, with a view of California deeply entrenched in cinematic folklore (although never coming across as an outward homage to the Hollwood movies from that era), Inherent Vice is an easy film to fall for. It’s dense and sprawling, but also kinda magical.