Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, creator of such classics as The Master and There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice is an adaption of the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. The story follows Larry “Doc” Sportello, played by the venerable Joaquin Phoenix (Her, I’m Still Here). Doc is a private investigator working in 1970s Los Angeles; the film follows him as he makes his way around the city investigating a number of cases. The most important of these is a mystery brought to his attention by his former girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Her current boyfriend, a wealthy real estate tycoon named Michael Z. “Mickey” Wolfman (Eric Roberts), has mysteriously vanished. As Doc looks into the case, he discovers it somehow has connections to numerous other cases he is investigating, including a ship supposedly smuggling cocaine from Mexico and another missing person case featuring a drug-addicted musician (played by Owen Wilson).
As it turns out, rather than being the screwball comedy I expected it to be, Inherent Vice is actually a bizarre fusion of crime drama crossed with a stoner comedy, with touches of Film Noir thrown in for good measure. It turns out that Doc, in addition to being a private eye, is also a serious hippie and unrepentant drug addict, seemingly smoking joints (or stronger substances) in nearly every scene. The film is steeped in the counter-culture of the 70s, and many of the characters are hippies who spend large chunks of the movie high. Unlike such archetypal stoner films as Pineapple Express, the comedy is very subtle and frequently easy to miss. At one point, Doc is with three others in a car that gets pulled over by a cop because the taillights were out; one of people in the car questions the cop’s motives and suggests he might’ve been targeting “hippoes” as he mutters, “It’s a Mercedes man, it’s only painted one color.” Much humor often comes from the simply bizarre situations Doc finds himself in and the colorful characters he interacts with.
But Inherent Vice is first and foremost a crime drama. It also seems to be Paul Thomas Anderson gently poking fun at Film Noir by subverting and averting many of its common tropes. On the surface, Doc seems to be a decently competent detective, but look a little closer and you find a drugged-out hippie who frequently only resolves cases and situations through sheer dumb luck. Shasta is initially set up as a Femme Fatale type character, but it turns out she’s not actually a bad person. Like Film Noir, the movie possesses a narrator for Doc’s adventures in the character of Sortilège, played by American musician Joanna Newsom. But it turns out she’s a new age pagan who likes to pepper in references to chakras and speculate on what effect the constellations and astrological signs are having on the plot.
And like any self-respecting Film Noir, Inherent Vice has a very complicated plot. In fact, the plot is so convoluted that I don’t think anyone can completely follow it. However, I believe that this is intentional on Anderson’s part, being a reflection of Doc’s coked-out mind. We can’t follow what’s happening because the person it’s happening to can’t make heads or tails of it either. But you really shouldn’t concern yourself with keeping too close of tabs on the plot, because that is not what’s important about the film; rather, to enjoy it, we need to let go of rational explanation and embrace the film’s incoherent style.
In the end, I look at Inherent Vice not so much as a coherent story but as a string of offbeat characters and outlandish situations strung together through what I can only think of as an affectionate parody of Film Noir and classic detective stories. Granted, I do feel like I only captured a very partial essence of the film since I saw it without being intoxicated in any sense. If you try to make rational sense of the film, you will fail and you will hate the film. But if you go with the flow and just let yourself be brought into Doc and Paul Thomas Anderson’s peculiar little world, than you may find Inherent Vice to be one of the most eccentrically fascinating films of the year.