Inherent Vice — so wrong it's right

Paul Thomas Anderson's all-star caper is entertaining if you can chuck your conventional film expectations out the window.

Share on Nextdoor

Inherent Vice 
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterston, Jordan Christian Hearn, Eric Roberts, Owen Wilson, Martin Short and Benicio del Toro. Now playing at local theaters. Rating: Four out of five stars.

Around one hour into Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, we see a photo of a colorful L.A. party configured into a Last Supper tableau with an Owen Wilson messiah — just one of the many visuals that drive home the movie's tacky brilliance.

The psychedelic detective noir caper is set in 1970 L.A., in a cute little oceanfront community called Gordita Beach. Introductions are made by narrator Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), neighbor and confidante of Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). 

Doc gets a surprise visit from his long-absent ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who reveals that her new sugar daddy, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), might be in trouble.

The visit sets off a chain reaction of odd events: A" Black Gorilla" ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams) tips Doc to one of Wolfman’s Aryan Brotherhood security guards and a new real estate development that has has eerily razed an entire neighborhood. Doc seeks out the desolate plot and finds an over-the-top massage parlor. After meandering through a purple plush-carpeted hallway, he is knocked out. He comes to next to the pursued skinhead, who's lying dead in the dirt beside him. (One of the best scenes in the film: Les Baxter exotica lounge music plays as little red advertising flags flap in the wind.) Doc is nearly arrested for the skinhead's murder by his cop nemesis, Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), but it turns out he doesn't really need the assistance of his lawyer buddy, played with deadpan brilliance by Benicio del Toro.

Shasta and her billionaire boyfriend go missing, and Doc also gets a job solving the disappearance of one of Shasta's smack-addict friends, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who turns out to be an FBI informant working for a Nixon propaganda group.

If you’re still with us, more situations unfold involving a boat and crime syndicate called the Golden Fang, a runaway, her corrupt and loaded dad, another evil skinhead, a loan shark on the take and a kooky, coke-addled dentist played by Martin Short.

The story, adapted faithfully from Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, is hectic, dreamy, panicked and lumbering all at once. You could say it has a stoner sense of timing. Cartoon-like comedy converges with multi-layered historical references, yards of colorful polyester, and sexy-lady eye candy.

Anderson’s unconventional pacing may put off some moviegoers, but it’s par for the course considering his increasingly denser and darker filmography. The director of There Will Be Blood and The Master has come a long way since his taut disco-porn epic Boogie Nights and his last comedic outing Punch-Drunk Love (2002). 

No matter, Inherent Vice offers great performances and cameos throughout. Phoenix's Doc is poised to join the court of Hollywood stoner royalty alongside The Big Lebowski's Dude. He's a sweet, bumbling misfit who conjures brilliant cockamamie schemes to solve mysteries. Phoenix's physical comedy is first rate (watch him flail before being clocked on the head with a baseball bat). 

Joanna Newsom's narration is nothing short of word porn. Her Sortilège is the matriarch of the film, a wise, earthy, beautiful woman in a sea of bimbos — Reese Witherspoon's FBI agent excepted. (Too bad both aren't in the film longer.) Potential band names from the film include Chick Planet, the name of the aforementioned massage parlor, and Little Kid Blues, a condition poignantly coined by Wilson's Coy, who's separated from his daughter.

Some of the most quotable lines come from Josh Brolin’s comedically sadistic Bigfoot, who characterizes Shasta’s disappearance as “she went all groovy on us.” He's hilarious as the closeted and codependent bully-cop who has a boatload of issues. 

Like Doc, Inherent Vice is endearing, flaws and all. Yes, it's excessive and unevenly paced, but Anderson's psychedelic odyssey gives us something more than a series of wacky events. It's mythic and allegorical with musings on greed and fear and, most of all, L.A's history of corruption. Anderson, a Cali native himself, knows his City of Angels all too well. He reminds us that L.A.'s beautiful illusions are propped up and maintained at the cost of human lives and welfare. The anxiety of the time period is resonant; the story takes place when the Manson Family and Vietnam War bludgeoned American innocence.

So if you’re able to chuck all your sensible-moviegoer notions out the window, you’ll find comedy, heart and even some gravitas in Inherent Vice. Best of all, Anderson is still an expert at giving us all-star, Altman-esque ensemble casts with combustible chemistry.

The biggest star of the film, of course, is the multiple-genre soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Embedded below.

Scroll to read more Local Arts articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.