There's a pious attention to the source material in Inherent Vice that defies writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's career so far. He has written all seven of his features and, besides There Will Be Blood—which was loosely adapted from an Upton Sinclair book, he has never really done someone else's material. That distance shows up in Inherent Vice, Anderson's least accessible film to date. And it may not even matter. The movie could be a masterpiece, but I'd have to see it five more times to decide.
Whatever the verdict, it's undeniable Inherent Vice is beautifully constructed, photographed, costume designed, and written. The language of Thomas Pynchon, who wrote the novel, creates the rhythm of the film. And it's hugely funny, especially the tandem of Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin, which becomes essential halfway through the movie when you all but give up on the convoluted story.
Unless you've read the novel (and even if you have) Inherent Vice won't soothe you in the warm bath of plot resolution. It's like the book: one guy tasting all the flavors of Los Angeles during a specific time and place. The setting and year being essential to the film's meaning doesn't leave much room for those other paltry things like functional narratives and character growth. Part of loving this movie is loving Southern California during its final hippie days of free sex and dirty joints. And the other part is loving the actors therein.
Inherent Vice belongs to Phoenix, who plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, the private eye and narrator of the novel (the narration bit replaced in the film by singer Joanna Newsom—a diversion from the book—who more or less reads Pynchon in her perfect voice). Sportello has seen it all and smoked it all and he barely reacts when his long lost girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up unannounced with a serious, not-so-groovy favor: find her current squeeze, the married real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who is "secretly Jewish but wants to be a Nazi." This little visit sends Doc reeling into a madhouse of strange characters and places which turns into an obsession when Shasta seemingly disappears.
Doc is no spring chicken however and Phoenix gives him a sharp confidence that belies his patterned pants, mutton chops, and perpetually lit spliff. He plays the part of lap dog to flat-topped Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornson (Brolin) who despises hippies, but recognizes Doc's smarts. He beats him and consults with him in equal measure. Their tentative "friendship" gives the film a high school-like social class division (other neo-noirs like The Big Lebowski and Brick do the same). It's a sign of the times (hippes fading, police running amuck) and the secret to the film's comedy. A great scene has Doc watching Bigfoot eat his favorite treat, a chocolate banana, in disgust as they drive together. Anderson's movies have always been weird, but they haven't been this goofy since Punch-Drunk Love.
As Doc searches for Mickey, he has run-ins with helpful prostitutes, Nazi bikers, bully cops, and marshmallow pizzas. His lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) helps him out with information; an assistant D.A. (Reese Witherspoon) does the same and stops by later; and a recovering addict (Jena Malone) asks Doc to help find her "dead" boyfriend, a sax player (Owen Wilson). And, while you might expect all these characters, pieces of information, and images to come together in a maelstrom of falling frogs, things go the opposite direction. As the film drives ahead (it's a long 149 minutes), it introduces more new characters as it seems Doc will never escape the Chocolate Factory.
The sights and sounds of Pynchon are Anderson's inspiration and he's masterfully adapted an unadaptable book, making it even more mysterioso than the novel in many ways, but just as colorful. It has its influences in sun-soaked noirs like The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and especially Lebowski (much of Vice feels like a Jackie Treehorn production). But it can't match those films in terms of overall vision. It meanders and unspools, but never winds together again. The greatness of the movie can be found in its character interactions. Phoenix is a revelation as Doc and he's a perfect guide through a forgotten time and very weird place.