Paul Thomas Anderson is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. By some, one of the greatest filmmakers of any time. Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood are held up, almost unanimously, as some of the finest films of the last quarter-century; some would add Magnolia and The Master to that list. (A few might even include Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love.)
Love him or hate him, Paul Thomas Anderson never wastes our time. He won’t toss one off for the mere sake of making something or collecting a paycheck. Every single moment in every single one of his movies is fully thought-through and executed exactly the way he intended it. Personally, I’m still not on board with the last few scenes of The Master, but I don’t doubt that Anderson presented them that way for a reason.
For what reason? I’ve no clue.
And I have no clue why he made many of the decisions he made in Inherent Vice, having seen it only once. (Most of Anderson’s oeuvre only gets better with subsequent viewings.) I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, and I still don’t know exactly what I’m meant to take away from much of Inherent Vice. I can’t be certain that every character in the movie is meant to be a real person, or that every character who starts off as a real person is still real at the end of the movie, or if some might be figments of its protagonist’s imagination. I might have been frustrated had Inherent Vice come from a filmmaker I’m less familiar with. But in this case, I’m pretty sure my confusion is intended.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a private detective. This is a curious profession for a man who is so perpetually stoned, he tends to forget how he arrived at any given location, or who he came with. When an informant gives him a key clue about a Spanish phrase that might solve the mystery, he writes down in his notepad: “Something Spanish.” Oh well, it’s the 70s. The major joke of Inherent Vice, both book and movie, is that it follows a stoner’s logic. Plot elements are impossibly connected through a series of absurd and unlikely coincidences. There is a seemingly endless parade of characters, yet all are somehow involved in the same labyrinthine mystery, which feels like the kind of conspiracy a stoner would dream up, rather than a plausible string of crimes. Doc doesn’t really understand what’s going on, but he manages to connect some of the dots anyway, and even through that marijuana fog he understands what’s happening better than we do. (Or thinks he does, anyway.)
Trying to follow the plot of Inherent Vice is like trying to follow a conversation with the most strung-out individual you’ll ever meet: impossible. It makes no sense. Inherent Vice forces us to wonder if we, somehow, got high upon entering the theater. The script is way heavy on exposition; nearly every scene includes a detailed explanation of something we don’t fully understand. Certain characters seem to come out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly, and many who enter this movie for a brief moment never return. We might wonder for a moment: “Hey, where’d what’s-her-name go?” But then we’re distracted by something else… then something else… and hey, there’s that one thing again… but wait, what?
What were we so worried about a few minutes ago? What’s the point of all this, again?Inherent Vice begins as Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) reenters his life after a long absence. She’s cleaned up — no longer a hippie, she claims to now be the arm candy of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). That’s the jumping off point, but before it’s over Inherent Vice will introduce us to Nazis, lecherous dentists, naughty masseuses, corrupt cops, contract killers, pot-smoking maritime lawyers, assorted junkies, and a cult or two — and that’s just for starters. Inherent Vice is basically a grand tour through all of 1970, or at least all of 1970 in Southern California. Nixon is president, the establishment is paranoid about drugged-out hippies, and the drugged-out hippies are paranoid about the establishment. It’s far out, man.
The plot may be incomprehensible, and Doc is so drugged out most of the time that we’re never entirely sure he isn’t hallucinating some or maybe all of this. The film is narrated by Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), who reads some of Pynchon’s prose and occasionally interacts with Doc (but no one else). She moves in and out of the story fluidly, mostly likely a figment of Doc’s imagination. The rest of the story, mostly, I take at face value, even if a handful of moments have the queasy unease of a bad trip. Characters hang around Doc and occasionally help with no motivation, but that feels about right for a bunch of hippies in 1970 who are most likely all stoned beyond belief. An ill-advised road trip that is interrupted by the cops is particularly loopy and manic, and also reminiscent of the fast friendships that are formed when people are totally fucked up.On a macro level, Inherent Vice is about the clash of the straight world with the counter-culture. When we meet Shasta, she has attempted to trade up her lot in life, shedding her beachside waif look for a more sophisticated ensemble, shedding her dopey detective ex for a fat cat tycoon. But it doesn’t stick. Doc is currently dating Penny (Reese Witherspoon), a high-and-mighty deputy district attorney who only lets her hair down in the privacy of Doc’s home. There’s a major rift between the uptight straights and the dippy hippies, made most explicit in Doc’s interactions with his nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who seems like a straight-laced lawman but drinks heavily, harbors a failed ambition of Hollywood stardom, and calls Doc up for frequent chats, seemingly out of boredom.
There is much to unpack in Inherent Vice — much more than can be done after a single viewing (even if you’ve read the book). Certain characters stick out — like the dope fiend dentist Dr. Blatnoyd, played by Martin Short, and Jade the helpful masseuse (Hong Chau), who kindly offers up the “pussy eater’s special” when she first meets Doc and then keeps pop upping conveniently any time he needs some info. Other characters fade from memory and seem less essential, but all represent a wacky piece of 1970 Americana. By this point, the children of the revolution were starting to lose their way, growing less sure of themselves and the groovy ideals they preached; the 1969 murders by Charles Manson’s followers had revealed the dark side of mind expansion, free love, and all that jazz. There was a time when many “square” Americans worried that the counter-culture was becoming the culture; Inherent Vice displays a weird push-pull between these factions, viewed on the periphery through the droopy eyes of Doc Sportello.Doc doesn’t realize it, but 1970 may have seemed like an apocalyptic time when viewed from a certain angle. For all we knew, the establishment might have been eradicated, replaced by an overabundance or drugs and sex and the collapse of life as we knew it. The threat of anarchy hangs over an otherwise sun-drenched Los Angeles in this movie, which is surreal either because it’s surreal or just because it’s 1970. Doc gets involved in a twisted plot involving Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a saxophonist, recovering junkie, and possible government operative who supposedly overdosed and died; he has left behind a young daughter and his wife Hope (Jena Malone), who has kicked her heroin habit and now sports some noticeably fake chompers. These two, I think, stand in for all of hippiedom, as (almost) everyone realized the visions of peace, love, and perpetual acid tripping that emerged in the latter 1960s were not a sturdy foundation to build a revolution on. The hippie life is only possible if the straight world is there to clean up the messes; by 1970, many of these crazy kids, like Hope and Coy, were heading back toward the family values and simple materialism that have kept America ticking all these years.
Inherent Vice is a vast spectrum of all the many ways these two societies intersect (or fail to). Some characters, like Penny and Doc’s lawyer buddy Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), manage to live a straight life while occasionally dipping their toe into some pot-fueled fun; others, like Dr. Blatnoyd and his teen lover Japonica (Sasha Pieterse), maintain a (thin) facade of respectability when they’re really dope-fiend hedonists at heart. Some, like Mickey Wolfmann, long to be hippies but can never be because of the trappings of their success. Some manage to shed their vices and get back on the path toward the American dream, while others are lost forever to institutes and cults. Doc, Shasta, and Doc’s stoner buddy Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn) may be hippies for life, but by 1970, they’re an endangered species.There may not ultimately be that big a different between the straights and the rebels. Those with money and power are just as screwed up, equal slaves to temptation — or perhaps worse. At the center of the story, Doc is a simple-minded innocent who wants for nothing except a good buzz. He works mainly for free, driven only by a vague quest to do the right thing for people who seem to be worth it, even if he’s too high most of the time to realize that that is his motivation. He’s a good guy, but also a rare and dying breed in a culture that, in 1970, already seems to be on its way out, just a few short years after its inception. Inherent Vice maybe has a nostalgia for what could have been… what should have been?… for a time when a lot of people had the right ideas but a flawed execution of their convictions. Youth tried to bump up against the establishment, but ultimately they were too stoned and inexperienced to fight back properly, just as Doc is too out of his mind to do more than stumble through this mystery.
Doc’s way of life was, for America, a failed experiment, but for Doc personally, it seems to be working. That’s because Doc has no illusions of the American dream, no thirst for wealth or power or acclaim. He likes beer, he likes sex, he really likes marijuana, and he enjoys the company of just about anyone who will ride along and partake with him. Like many stoners, Inherent Vice has a lot on its mind — big ideas it can only begin to grasp at before they dissipate in the air like smoke from a bong.
(I still have only mentioned maybe half the characters in this movie, which also contains miniscule showings by the likes of Maya Rudolph, Timothy Simons, Jeannie Berlin, Martin Donovan, Jillian Bell, Serena Scott Thomas, and porn star Belladonna. Special shout out to director of photography Robert Elswit and composer Jonny Greenwood, doing typically stellar work in collaboration with Anderson. This looks and feels like it came directly from 1970.)Inherent Vice is tonally most consistent with Anderson’s oddball comedy Punch-Drunk Love, but set in the world of Boogie Nights. He can’t help but add a rather bonkers finale involving Brolin’s Detective Bigfoot, one that feels of a piece with the equally nutty climaxes of The Master and There Will Be Blood. As with both of these other films, there is a central conflict between two very different types of men. Doc, like Daniel Plainview and Freddie Quell, represent chaos and a bucking of the system, while Bigfoot, like Paul Sunday and Lancaster Dodd, represent order (and hypocrisy). Can these two very different types of men coexist, live and let live? Anderson sometimes ends such tales with a brutal murder by bowling pin, sometimes with a rendition of “Slow Boat To China,” and here falls somewhere in between. (I wager that the “Slow Boat To China” ending would make a lot more sense here than in The Master.)
As with most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of Inherent Vice at this point, and only time can tell how I’ll ultimately feel. One thing is obvious: the master is at work. Inherent Vice is willfully incoherent and has almost nothing in common with your average movie mystery. You will grow more confused, not less, as it unravels, and that is as it is intended to be. You may not enjoy Inherent Vice if you are looking for either a thriller or a comedy, or a story to follow, or characters to invest in. Inherent Vice isn’t that kind of movie. It isn’t any kind of movie, except a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
It’s about the American dream, about a very specific moment in time that says so much about everything that’s come after, about the highs and lows of habitual drug use… the old guard versus the new guard and the new guard becoming the old guard again… and also about a wacky detective who’s looking into a mysterious drug syndicate called the Golden Fang… and… a missing woman who’s not really missing, and a missing man who is easily found… and a murder, no, wait, not a murder… but there’s a different murder… but that’s not really relevant… and… wait, what was I talking about again?*