Lazy story structure and arcless arc compliment, rather than injure, Inherent Vice. P.T. Anderson’s ingratiating version of sometimes-Aptos-based author Thomas Pynchon’s homage to detective fiction. The mood is far more important than the case. It’s a threnody for the end of the 1960s, as the best defective-detective since Dude Lebowski tries to determine who is responsible for what.
Narration by a female psychic named Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) provides a frame for the adventures of Doc Sportello. He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix, muttonchopped and straw-hatted like the young Neil Young. He’s sort of-kind of on the trail of a vanished developer called Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The detective learns the real estate bigwig has connections to Shasta (Katherine Waterston) the lovely who Doc said farewell to years before. For a time, Doc’s nemesis seems to be the furious yet telegenic “Renaissance cop” Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, beautifully channeling the blocked rage of Sterling Hayden). The way Anderson reveals a friendship between the hippie-hating flattop and the passive stoner is one of the film’s surprises.
Inherent Vice isn’t a lavish recreation of 1970 LA; it takes place in cars, offices and other interiors where the walls barely keep out the ambient paranoia. TV sets act as informants, reluctantly doling out clues. Understanding the way this time-honored genre makes its own gravy, Anderson has Doc knocked cold to wake up somewhere else, and sends strangers into the room holding weapons. Many exotic women turn up to turn Doc around. These include the bad-girl Shasta, who whips up a memorable sex scene—in the end, what’s more erotic than a woman describing exactly what she wants? The very kinky half-pint porn star Belladonna has a cameo, as does Serena Scott-Thomas as the scantily clad Mrs. Wolfmann. The film teems with Southern California eccentrics—Martin Short as a horndog dentist, Owen Wilson as a legally dead saxophonist. A malign influence on all is a mysterious organization called “The Golden Fang,” perhaps still at large. Inherent Vice is a light film, but it leaves an impression that the heavy films can’t. The vanishings, the bad vibes and the smoggy seaside light creates its own keen melancholy.
R; 148 Min.