Just when it seemed Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”), one of our finest filmmakers, was making only important films now, he gives us “Inherent Vice,” a shaggy, funny detective story that amounts to a 21/2-hour-long lark.
Based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel and filled with stoners, seductresses, hippie-hating cops and shady businessmen, “Vice’s” haywire plot loses the viewer about halfway in. Yet the film never is less than watchable, thanks to smart visual nods to the cinematic past and to an ingratiating lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix, as private detective Doc Sportello.
Set in 1970 in Los Angeles, “Vice” avoids the wa-wa psychedelia clichés of other drug-fueled movies. Though its plot takes woozy turns, the film’s overall tone remains lucid. In that way, it resembles Doc, who keeps his wits about him despite a prodigious marijuana habit.
Phoenix, so tortured and tense in “The Master,” here goes befuddled and loose, perfecting the comic pratfall as Doc gets rolled by criminals and cops alike. Doc dusts himself off after being knocked down, his Army-surplus jacket a bit rumpled, him a bit dazed. But he looked that way before being hit.
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Whether due to pot or his constitution, Doc is unflappable. He’s also skeptical, which makes him a a semi-effective P.I. and an entirely welcome audience guide to Pynchon’s world of gaudy, drug-ripened Angelenos. Phoenix’s occasional disapproving looks suggest that Doc, while accepting that everyone is on his or her own trip, thinks there should be limits.
Beneath “Vice’s” free, easy surface lies an indictment of the times being too free, too easy – a buzz-harshing, Joan Didion-like frankness that separates this film from more sentimental looks at the 1960s and ’70s.
Those fonder works rarely highlight, as “Vice” does, the rampant heroin use of the period. Heroin informs the film’s plot, and it also affected the dental health of an over-sharing ex-junkie (a cheery Jena Malone) who shows Doc the huge fake chompers that replaced her dope-ruined teeth.
She also regales him with unseemly stories about her love for her one-time partner in shooting up, a surf saxophonist played with characteristic mellowness by Owen Wilson.
“Love” is a word thrown around too often in L.A. in 1970, as Doc’s pal and the movie’s narrator, Sortilège (singer and Nevada City native Joanna Newsom) remarks in airy yet conspiratorial voiceover.
Sometimes, though, the word still carries meaning. It does for Doc regarding his ex-flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who shows up suddenly at Doc’s beach house one night.
She wants his help in stopping a kidnap plot involving her married lover, developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, doing a spaced-out version of John Huston in “Chinatown,” sans incest), Wolfmann’s wife and the wife’s boyfriend.
Doc tries to be professional. But he once fell for Shasta, and still is prone to fall for her, despite his casual affair with a deputy DA (Reese Witherspoon, a crisp antidote to the noodly hippie-dom surrounding her).
Doc’s search for answers regarding the Shasta love quadrangle leads to run-ins with determinedly square LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, played with great relish by Josh Brolin. As Newsom’s narration promises when the character arrives on screen, Brolin’s Bigfoot is a man in possession of “a flattop of Flintstones proportions” and “a twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violation.’”
Bigfoot is Doc’s professional ally/thorn in side, and Brolin and Phoenix together are comedy gold. Brolin cracks Bigfoot’s stone face just long enough to show the detective’s joy at misleading Doc into thinking Shasta – who eventually goes missing – is dead.
Though “Vice” lacks the grand sweep of “Blood” and “The Master,” Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit capture the look of early ’70s L.A., or more precisely, our impressions of it gleaned through movies and TV shows of the day.
Bathed in alluring shadow when she shows up at Doc’s house, Shasta is that early ’70s cinematic dream girl. Lithe, bohemian, bra-less yet still classy, she is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of her day, but more man-dependent, less self-determined.
Think Susan Anspach in “Five Easy Pieces” or Katharine Ross in “The Graduate.” Waterston, big-eyed and vulnerable but radiating intelligence, nails this cinematic type, who served as a societal bridge between traditional beliefs about womanhood and women’s-liberation-movement progress, and a stylistic bridge from the acting formalism of earlier decades to the naturalism that took hold in the ’70s.
Outdoor scenes capture the sunny-gray quality of 1970s Los Angeles – or at least the same quality that shows such as “Adam-12” exhibited. Either way, you practically can smell the cigarette smoke and smog.
Pynchon created “Vice’s” world, but Anderson’s presentation of it jibes with Anderson films made from his original scripts, such as the sun-dappled trip through degradation that was the (later)-’70s, L.A.-set “Boogie Nights.” San Fernando Valley native Anderson always shows an appreciation for L.A.’s raw beauty and an aversion to attempts to glamorize it.
Because the director is a towering talent, “Vice” will be remembered as minor Anderson. But even greats can use a romp or two in their oeuvres.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated R (drug use, sexual content, graphic nudity, language, some violence)