The good-vibing ’60s are slip-sliding away in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” and along with them a certain idea of pre-Vietnam, pre-Manson California life — of boho beach towns and uncommodified counterculture soon to be washed away by a tsunami of gentrification, social conservatism and Reaganomics. Freely but faithfully adapted by Anderson from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 detective novel — the first of the legendary author’s works to reach the screen — Anderson’s seventh feature film is a groovy, richly funny stoner romp that has less in common with “The Big Lebowski” than with the strain of fatalistic, ’70s-era California noirs (“Chinatown,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Night Moves”) in which the question of “whodunit?” inevitably leads to an existential vanishing point. Not for all tastes (including the Academy’s), this unapologetically weird, discursive and totally delightful whatsit will repel staid multiplex-goers faster than a beaded, barefoot hippie in a Beverly Hills boutique. But a devoted cult awaits the Warner Bros. release, which opens wide Jan. 9 following a Dec. 12 limited bow.
If “Inherent Vice” couldn’t, on its surface, seem to have less in common with Anderson’s previous pic, the fictionalized Scientology origins story “The Master,” it is, just beneath, another sympathetic portrait of wayward souls clambering for solid ground in war-torn America (albeit with the relative optimism of the ’40s replaced by a blanket of Nixonian paranoia). The year is 1970 and the place Gordita Beach, a fragile ecosystem of surfers, psychics and sandal-clad shamuses in danger of disappearing from the map. (Pynchon modeled the fictional South Bay town on Manhattan Beach, where he lived in the late ’60s during the writing of “Gravity’s Rainbow”).
Among the locals is Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, sporting Groucho Marx eyebrows and Elvis sideburns), who runs his private-eye business out of a medical office and seems to spend considerably more time scoring grass than solving cases. But then, as Pynchon writes, American life is “something to be escaped from” — a line Anderson repeats verbatim in the film — which means good business for PIs and drug dealers alike. Indeed, in “Inherent Vice,” everyone is hiding out from something.
That includes Shasta Fay Hepworth (leggy, lissome newcomer Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam), an ex of Doc’s for whom the flame still burns. She’s the obligatory woman in trouble who sets “Vice’s” psychedelic Raymond Chandler plot in motion, showing up unannounced on Doc’s doorstep spouting claims of a conspiratorial plot involving her current lover, a deep-pocketed real-estate magnate named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose wife may be angling to commit him to a loony bin. And before Doc can so much as follow a lead, Mickey — and Shasta — promptly vanish into the ether. It’s the start of a pretzel-shaped trail that snakes across the Southland from the rolling surf to the concrete “flatlands” east of the 405, and from low-rent petty criminals to the corridors of government power (i.e., bigger criminals), and where nothing is as it first — or even secondarily — appears.
Pynchon and Anderson’s world is a fluid, shape-shifting one in which every conversation is an exercise in doublespeak and people change identities as frequently as they change their clothes. A nefarious entity calling itself the Golden Fang may be a blacklisted movie star’s personal sailing vessel, an Indo-Chinese drug cartel, or a syndicate of tax-dodging dentists fronted by a coke-snorting Dr. Feelgood (a delirious Martin Short), while the presumed-dead “surf sax” musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) may actually be an alive-and-well student agitator named Rick or a police informant known as Chucky — or, quite possibly, all and none of these things at once. Elsewhere, there are more distressed damsels and femme fatales than you can shake a joint at, including Doc’s on-again, off-again assistant D.A. girlfriend, Penny (Reese Witherspoon); Coy’s reformed-addict “widow,” Hope (Jena Malone); and the unstable rich girl Japonica (Sasha Pieterse), whom Doc recovered in a long-ago teen runaway case.
The more Doc digs (while appearing throughout in his own succession of disguises and alter egos), the more the plot doesn’t so much thicken as spread out, like the city itself, stretching infinitely toward the smoggy horizon. When a bump on the noggin results in Doc waking up next to a corpse and surrounded by cops, he even becomes a suspect in his very own case, though it’s pretty clear that Doc’s primary police antagonist, the detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), has other designs on him. A hulking Swede who moonlights as a TV actor and celebrity pitch man (yet more disguises), Bjornsen appears at first to be as square as his flat-top haircut, but is gradually revealed as a tortured soul with his own compelling melancholy, and Brolin plays every one of those crosscurrents and contradictions to wry comic perfection. He practically vibrates with the wiry energy of the landlocked establishment man who yearns to let his hair down, a Joe Friday primed to explode.
Arguably the greatest of the wave of postmodern, metafictional American writers that also produced William Gaddis and John Barth, Pynchon is a conspicuous cinephile whose novels run thick with movie references (both real and invented), but whose phantasmagoric, form-bending narratives have long seemed to resist cinematic translation (though the indie director Alex Ross Perry made a very admirable stab at channeling the spirit of “Gravity’s Rainbow” in his micro-budget 2009 “Impolex”). Clocking in at a mere 369 pages, making it Pynchon’s shortest novel since “The Crying of Lot 49” in 1966, the linear, dialogue-driven “Vice” seemed a more logical candidate, and one very much in sync with Anderson’s own yen for vast arrangements of characters who collide and ricochet in kaleidoscopic patterns.
Even then, Anderson has had to judiciously pare back the book’s dozens of speaking parts and near-endless digressions (including a long third-act detour to Las Vegas). But he’s done a supremely effective job of keeping Pynchon’s voice present in the film — literally — by turning the peripheral character of Doc’s ex-assistant, Sortilege (singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, in her bigscreen debut), into an onscreen narrator, who pops into and out of scenes like a manifestation of Doc’s subconscious, a surfer-girl Jiminy Cricket.
Moreover, Anderson has superbly captured Pynchon’s laconic, gently surreal tone, which permeates the film as thoroughly as the hazy SoCal light of Robert Elswit’s gorgeous 35mm cinematography (with dirt, scratches and other film artifacts on full view rather than digitally erased). As befits Doc’s drug of choice, the style of the movie is mellow yet anxious, nearly all static master shots and slow, creeping zooms — closer in look and feel to “The Master” than to the speed-fueled, Scorsesean pirouettes of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” The punchlines to the innumerable jokes are casually tossed off, as dry as the Santa Ana winds. Anderson also avoids any stylized, drug-induced fantasy sequences, the point being that the world in broad daylight is the heaviest trip of all. And those aesthetic choices are echoed in Phoenix’s beautifully understated, lightly buzzed performance, as the actor furrows his brow and stares bewildered into the void, seeking an existential truth far more elusive than any phantom lady.
Pynchon and Anderson don’t peddle the myth here that the hippies had it all figured out, man, or that drugs are a conduit to a higher plane of being. By the end, just about everyone seems equally noble and absurd — the flower children and the captains of industry, the free spirits and the brass-tacks enforcers. The ground is shifting under them all, but whereas Anderson has often tilted toward the apocalyptic in his endings, in “Inherent Vice” the great, seismic cataclysm is nothing more (or less) than the passage of time and the closing of an era. It’s there that Anderson’s innate romanticism falls in step with Pynchon’s own grudging assertion that we are each other’s own best hope, and that sometimes the greatest disappearing act of all is to return home.
Working on a modest budget, production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges (both regular Anderson collaborators) evoke the period in all of its paisley, denim, earth-toned splendor without ever resorting to kitsch. Composer Jonny Greenwood provides Anderson with another typically polyphonic original score that ranges from a plaintive violin theme to atonal surf/acid rock twangs, nestled in among an equally eclectic playlist of pop, soul and experimental rock needle drops.