The passage of time is a complicated and sad proposition. Obviously, as the seconds melt away, we march towards an undesirable outcome. But our journey towards mortality becomes more melancholic when our self-absorption, coupled with the swift movement of time, numbs us to subtle shifts in our culture’s landscape. Before we know it, we’re giving a eulogy to an idea, a movement, or a time period. Things have changed without our consent, and what was will never be again. Our nostalgic yearnings prompt us to infiltrate our mental archives, hoping to extract a feeling from a memory that’s as fleeting as time itself. Replicating this desire is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. Enveloped in a haze that’s indicative of an unknown future and constructed from copious amounts of weed, Inherent Vice is the romantic recreation of the hippie movement and its subsequent death.
Taking place in the fictional beach side city known as Gordita Beach, a name that’s surely to give stoners an insatiable appetite, private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) lives a mild-mannered life smoking weed, having sex, and investigating the inscrutable lives of sunny California’s citizens. Doc’s liaisons often conflict with the work of LAPD detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an all-American man with a crew cut and chiseled jaw that would make Johnny Unitas feel inadequate. On a random night, with the waves crashing in the distance, Doc’s life becomes deliriously complicated when his ex-old lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), slips through his front door uninvited. Shasta’s request for Doc is simple: she needs his help stopping a plan that will send her billionaire boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) to the mad house. To no one’s surprise, the plan’s mastermind is Wolfmann’s wife and her cabana boy. Doc hesitantly accepts the job, but the case’s simplicity slips away as he finds himself in a convoluted plot involving Shasta and Mickey’s disappearance, the Aryan Brotherhood, a coked up dentist, the FBI, and a secret drug operation known as the Golden Fang.
This is merely the beginning of Doc’s investigation, as he interacts with countless characters along the way. Many of them slip out of the haze, willing to divulge their secrets through whispers and careful gazes. Before Doc can coax more information from his witness, they disappear. Much of the disdain thrown at Inherent Vice concerns its indiscriminate plotting, which is understandable. Anderson’s screenplay isn’t interested in narrative clarity, and that’s largely the point. Doc, a man deeply dependent on chemically induced stupors, struggles to grasp the difference between fact and fiction, reality and hallucination. Hell, one doesn’t even know if Doc’s closest confidant, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), who also doubles as the film’s narrator, is real or a figment of his imagination. A steady blitz of characters isn’t meant to deepen the film’s core mystery, but to heighten Doc’s increasing paranoia. It’s a state that’s highly reflective of the film’s time frame, where Charlie Manson and his murderous cult exacerbated the venom directed at the hippie movement. Due to the unpredictability of the film’s investigation and characters, Anderson levies a great deal of zany humor against the film’s somber reflection of the late 60’s.
Visual gags find Joaquin Phoenix being the shiny metallic ball to Josh Brolin’s pin ball machine, while subtle moments, like Doc whispering out an entire scene of dialog with saxophonist turned informant Coy (Owen Wilson), humorously pay homage to film noir tropes. Miraculously, Anderson finds an equilibrium between satiric jabs at the counterculture movement and providing an epitaph for a place and time drenched in idealism. Helping Anderson mine the gap between hilarity and sincerity is a terrific cast anchored by Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin. Joaquin is elastic in his role, imbuing Doc with an endearing idiocy and earnestness that makes him a lovable loser merely sifting through life’s shit. Brolin, whose Bjornsen is the antithesis to Doc, is frighteningly funny, but there’s a dark edge hiding behind his character’s rigidity that’s ultimately heartbreaking. Katherine Waterston as Shasta is a revelation, while Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and Jena Malone all shine in roles that propel Doc towards a chaotic end. Surrounding Anderson’s players is impeccable production design, gorgeous cinematography from Robert Elswit, and another spellbinding score from Jonny Greenwood. We can’t help but feel as if we’re aimlessly floating along with Doc, just as confused as he is, if not as stoned. Anderson takes these strands of fabric and creates a bizarre, funny, and beautiful tapestry of 1960’s Americana. We can’t help but relish in its absurdities, admire its idealism, and mourn its death, full well knowing it will never be like this again.