There is a big, sprawling mystery at the center of Inherent Vice — one that concerns two missing characters, a secretive boat and a cryptic drug syndicate — and the funny thing is that it is entirely beside the point. Inherent Vice is not about the mystery. It is about the people who populate it. Hippies and potheads and beach bums, real-estate moguls and Nazis and square-jawed cops. It is about culture clashes and lost loves. And, ultimately, it’s about Larry “Doc” Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix’s reefer-addicted, shaggy-dog private investigator, who’s trying to navigate a world he’d probably be out of his league in even if he was sober. Doc is a wonderful character to spend nearly two and a half hours with. Phoenix plays him loose as hell, modulating his voice so it’s a little thinner and a little reedier than normal. Doc seems to make for a decent if unconventional private eye, mostly thanks to his persistence and occasional fearlessness. But he’s also a buffoon, and the dichotomy of those two sides is endlessly entertaining.
A strong central character is something writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is not unfamiliar with. Look no further than Daniel Plainview or Dirk Diggler. But in most other ways, Inherent Vice, adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, is very different from the rest of Anderson’s filmography. For starters, it’s nearly a full-blown comedy. Okay, sure, it’s a noir-drama-comedy, but I think it intends to make you laugh even more than Punch-Drunk Love, which, if you forget, is the PTA film that stars Adam Sandler. That movie has jokes but is still coated in a specific darkness. You half expect violence to erupt at almost any moment, which creates a feeling of deep unease, something that pops up again and again in Anderson’s films. But not in Inherent Vice, which, like its lead character, is laid back and content to breeze through its tale without getting too worked up over stuff.
Doc’s story is that he’s probably still in love in Shasta Fay Hepworth, a dreamy California surfer girl played by Katherine Waterston, who you’re probably going to be in love with by the end of the movie. Shasta comes to him for help in thwarting a scheme to kidnap her new boyfriend, a married real-estate mogul (Eric Roberts) with ties to a number of shady groups and individuals. Before long, Shasta also goes missing and Doc finds himself waking up on the beach next to a corpse. Things keep spiraling out of control from there as Doc digs deeper into the mystery, which ends up involving a grossly unethical dentist (Martin Short) and a saxophonist working undercover as a police informant (Owen Wilson). Doc also gets help from some friends, including his lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) and his district attorney girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). Although the most meaningful person in Doc’s orbit is probably Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a flat-topped, seemingly by-the-book L.A. cop (and struggling actor) played by Josh Brolin. Doc and Bigfoot are at opposite ends of the establishment and consider each other their nemesis. But they spend the movie working together toward a common goal. Brolin is uproarious here, and he and Phoenix bounce off each other extraordinarily well. Pretty much every scene the two share in the film is a highlight.
Inherent Vice is set in the 1970s, but Anderson doesn’t beat you over the head with overt references or musical cues. The film’s story partially feeds off the era’s counterculture movement in the wake of the Vietnam War, but recreational drug use, along with the paranoia it can create regardless of decade, proves just as important. The movie ultimately comes down on the side of the potheads. Inherent Vice treats the police and FBI as nuisances or puppets having their strings pulled by nefarious higher-ups. It’s fuzzy-headed Doc who goes about setting things right for various folks, while Bigfoot’s straight-laced existence proves to be somewhat of a facade.
Looking at Inherent Vice in terms of Anderson’s filmmography, it feels like the film he needed to make right now. Don’t bother trying to compare this one to a titan like Boogie Nights (it won’t be favorable), and I even think I slightly prefer PTA’s last film, 2012’s The Master. But where that movie was psychologically punishing — as so many of Anderson’s films are — this one feels like the director’s attempt to produce something a little more comfortable for audiences. Its dreamy, unhurried adventure is narrated by musician Joanna Newsom, whose honey-voiced line readings the make movie seem almost like a fable (be it a trippy drug-induced one). Inherent Vice is still nowhere near mainstream, but considering how much fun it is to spend time with these characters, it could prove to be one of Anderson’s most rewatchable movies.