“Are you still trying to figure out if it’s right or wrong, Shasta?”
“Worse than that.”
So goes an early exchange in Inherent Vice, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s lasciviously comic detective novel. Set amidst the druggy beach scene of 1970 California, the movie is a witty, bleak and affectionate riff on the gumshoe genre, from the hard-boiled, early noir days to Robert Altman’s revisionist The Long Goodbye. Yet, in its empathetic attitude towards the damaged souls we encounter, all of whom are experiencing a different level of woundedness, Inherent Vice is also very much of a piece with Anderson’s earlier work, particularly Magnolia, Boogie Nights and his previous film, The Master.
Anderson reteams with Master star Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Doc Sportello, a hazy private detective eking out a living of sorts in a beach shack a few blocks from the ocean. The sudden reappearance of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a former lover over whom he still pines, launches Doc into a rabbit’s hole of an investigation. It starts with the real estate mogul (Eric Roberts) Shasta is currently dating, leads to a former surf rocker turned government snitch (Owen Wilson) and eventually winds up at a sketchy youth rehab center out in the desert. Watching closely from the sidelines is the civil rights-abusing LAPD detective (Josh Brolin), with whom Doc has an amusingly adversarial professional relationship.
In the context of Doc and Shasta’s early conversation, these characters are all far beyond “right” and “wrong.” They’re each so lost in a moral morass that they’re often acting out of desperation rather than some clear motivation. Meanwhile, larger forces are at work all around them, seemingly guiding the narrative toward a fixed and awful conclusion and rendering any “choices” they make meaningless. One of the running jokes is how every conversation Doc has seems to connect one higher power (the feds) with another (a heroin ring). Taking out his notebook, Doc jots down “paranoia alert,” both as a clue and as a reminder of his state of mind.
These characters are all far beyond “right” and “wrong.”
Inherent Vice is, in fact, Anderson’s funniest film since Boogie Nights. Phoenix has a blast with the curlicue noir dialogue and the chance to play the picture’s addled fool. And like the fools of Shakespeare, Doc often has the best sense of what’s really going on (or at least enough of a sense to know that there’s more going on than we see). Many of the laughs simply come from watching Doc trying to focus in the midst of ridiculous conversations, whether it’s the young mother and former heroin addict (Jena Malone) going on about her new “chompers” or a massage parlor worker (a squeakily hilarious Hong Chau) who won’t stop promoting the shop’s obscene daily specials.
Given the seediness of the setting, it’s apropos that Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit decided to shoot Inherent Vice in 35mm, giving it a scratchy, dirtied veneer that makes it look as if it was first released in 1970. The aesthetic goes beyond the format, however, as not every film shot in 35mm has this sort of grimy air. There’s also gunk in the heavy mascara on Chau’s eyes and grunge in Phoenix’s gangly beard. Even Brolin, with his brush cut, white shirt and tie, manages to exude a sweaty sort of despair.
As a framing device, Inherent Vice features voiceover narration from Doc and Shasta’s mutual friend, Sortilege (a winsome Joanna Newsom). At one point, Sortilege ruminates on the “ancient forces of greed and fear” conspiring to twist whatever trend is at hand – hippie hangouts, surf rock – to their own ends. The movie also charts how our own personal greed and fear (our inherent vice) make us complicit in allowing this to happen. Standing apart, maybe by an inch, is Doc, because he’s the only one whose motivation – to help Shasta – is pure. He can be corrupted too, as we see in a disturbing moment of sexual violence. Yet when push comes to shove, Doc can be counted on to do the “right” thing. For a druggie, his vision is clear.