At first glance, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest seems like the one his fans have been waiting for ever since “Boogie Nights” made him a cult-movie star director. “Inherent Vice,” based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, is, like “Nights,” set in the nebulous and expansive realm of Los Angeles. It’s also set in the 1970s, with Joaquin Phoenix as a perpetually stoned private detective. And like “Nights,” at first it seems like an audience-friendly, comic drama poking fun at American culture through the lens of self-serious times. At first.
If you’ve watched Anderson’s career develop, from “Magnolia” through “There Will Be Blood” to “The Master,” you probably won’t be surprised that “Inherent Vice” eventually wanders off into something completely different.
With a new Afro and a joint for every occasion, “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) is the right kind of protagonist to take us down this new, circuitous and sometimes tortuous path. He operates a private-detective agency out of a real doctors’ office, his most recent case a missing land developer (Eric Roberts) that puts him at odds with cops, Feds, criminals and a seemingly endless array of other interested parties. In broad strokes, it doesn’t sound too complicated. But Doc and the movie eventually get lost in the details, which are endless, and delivered to and by characters who often are stoned to the gills.
The movie recognizes and delights in its opacity. “I hope this isn’t another one of your long-winded, hippy bullshit stories,” growls police Lt. Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) to Doc during one of their many discussions about the case. A more futile request would be difficult to find in cinema. “Inherent Vice” is almost nothing but long-winded stories, hippy and otherwise, one right after the other, never ending and never resolving.
These conversations are like surreal riffs on the hardboiled detective speech of 1940s and ’50s cop movies and their more risible spawn, the countless 1960s and ’70s television cop shows they inspired. (“I watch you guys every Friday,” Doc tells a couple of G-men.) Important note: It’s like those shows, but minus the action. Imagine “Hawaii Five-O” stripped down to its exposition.
Doc visits a brothel to gain intel but learns about the daily specials instead. He meets a woman (Jena Malone) who tells us more about loss of calcium through heroin use than anything integral to the case. Her husband (Owen Wilson) shows up later during a nighttime rendezvous on a foggy ocean dock in a scene right out of the detective movie cliché book. By then, even if you can follow their discussion, good luck piecing it together with everything else.
Anderson has been maddeningly oblique about his intentions with his previous, divisive film, “The Master,” and “Inherent Vice” is even less objectively entertaining. It actually enhances, with cinematic flair, the difficult discursiveness of the novel. While characters talk and talk, music plays in the background — enjoyable, atmospheric music balanced right up to but not quite at the level of interference, at the edge of the dialogue but never overtop it. It doesn’t eclipse what’s being said, but lures you away from it, as does the cinematography, always charming and beautiful, shot on gorgeous 70 mm film that’s enveloping on the right screen. You’re listening and watching and all of a sudden you’re thinking, “What were those people talking about again?” The effect seems intentional.
To truly enjoy “Inherent Vice” you have to recognize and admire its refusal to be traditionally enjoyable. Unlike other genre reworks (“The Big Lebowski” and Tarantino films seem specific targets at times) “Vice” goes a step further to self subvert. Doc’s hunt for the land developer, so integral to the opening dialogue, eventually dissipates into conversations that lead nowhere, interwoven with genre tropes so obvious and hoary they make “Starsky & Hutch” (the television series) seem deep and original. Those old episodic cop shows were designed so you didn’t have to remember what happened from week to week. “Inherent Vice” is designed to make you forget what happens moment to moment. Monotony and obscurity become part of the joke.
The dock scene is fittingly symbolic: The movie is all a haze, like the perpetually stoned Doc, who listens to informants drone on and on, only to jot in his detective notebook such enigmas as “kind of paranoid.”
Who? Doc? The informant? Us? Who or what’s being parodied? If I want to sit through “Inherent Vice” again am I a sophisticated film lover or just a glutton for punishment? (R) 148 min. S