Inherent Vice is set in a California that isn’t so much any actual, existing place present or past, but rather a version of the west coast deeply informed by pop culture’s collective, cumulative ideas of what the west coast is and was like. It’s immersed in the dying days of the counterculture, which as imagined by source novelist Thomas Pynchon was apparently a morass of failed attempts at stardom, paranoia, occult panics fictional and otherwise, and the general feeling that something is wrong, and more importantly, that something is lost that cannot be fully possessed again. In that, Pynchon’s version isn’t entirely off-base with what American culture experienced at the turn of the ‘70s. But as seen through a modern perspective, Inherent Vice is at once perfectly specific and timeless.
See, “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) seems to be one of the last guys to get the memo that the drugs, sex, and flower power of the ‘60s are dying off and dying fast. He lives in a bungalow right by the ocean, in the fictional Gordita Beach, where he spends his days in a haze of pot smoke and fractured memories of his once beloved Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the perfect surfer girl dream turned “flatland” dweller. At the film’s start, Shasta “suddenly out of nowhere” turns up, asking Doc for serious help, apparently involved in some sort of nastiness involving her lover’s wife (and her lover) trying to get him committed to an insane asylum. The rub? Her lover is Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a local real estate impresario with all kinds of vicious, under-the-table connections. Then Mickey and Shasta both disappear, and Doc is left to use his acumen as a private dick to find out where they went before something really bad happens.
Inherent Vice only starts there, and to synopsize its plot at any length is, in a lot of respects, a fool’s errand. There’s plenty more to talk about, from the saxophone player who finds himself in way over his head (Owen Wilson) to the black nationalist who needs Doc to help with a favor that may or may not be related to his central case (Michael K. Williams) to Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a square cop with a secretly rebellious streak who’s repulsed by Doc even as he recognizes the “hippie scum”’s value in finding the kinds of people that a straight-and-narrow type like Bigfoot never could. There’s also the Golden Fang, which could be anything from a coalition of dentists to an Indo-Chinese trafficking cartel. And there’s Joanna Newsom as a Greek chorus of sorts, telling Doc’s story via long, winding passages of Pynchon’s original prose. That’s not even scratching the surface, either.
But again, Inherent Vice isn’t really about anything that it purports to be, in a sense. Paul Thomas Anderson, in a return to the loose, wild form of his earlier work, pitches the film in a strange, heretofore seemingly uninhabited space between screwball comedy, aching nostalgia, surrealist violence, and, well, Thomas Pynchon. The singular novelist is a perfect match for Anderson, who’s spent most of his post-millennium period offering increasingly Kubrickian character studies in American men whose brains have been warped in a great many directions by their pursuits of whatever elusive ideal the American Dream promises to all. Here, he finds a new riff on that theme, in the form of Doc, a guy who still genuinely cares about his fellow man, when he can be roused from his impaired stupor to do so. Though Doc’s not a druggy idiot by any stretch; if anything, as suggested by the film, his experiments with hallucinogens sharpened his investigative instincts.
The funny thing about this fake, surreal, somewhat Big Lebowski-esque vision of the hippie strongholds and flatlands of ‘70s California alike is that it’s achingly wistful in a way that even the timelier chronicles of the age (Chinatown, for one) couldn’t touch. Hindsight allows for Anderson to mourn not only an era, but an entire idea, a period of culture in which everybody still kinda-sorta believed that everything would be okay in the end, even as the world repeatedly established that this would not be the case. In this regard, for a film that prominently features Phoenix and Brolin in a pair of masterful comic performances, Inherent Vice is also relentlessly sad. As Doc voyages ever deeper into the sun-torched recesses of the Valley, and as its inhabitants’ tangled, sordid lives weave in and out of one another’s, the film offers a vision that’s, again, somehow timeless in its specificity. Inherent Vice is an elegy for not just the innocence of the ‘60s, but of any idealistic age or really of any ideal. Belying the film’s strange bursts of comedy and its endless wealth of fantastic performances is the notion that nothing will ever be the same, and never can be, and perhaps scariest of all, that everybody in its weird, Pynchonian world will be too busy with their own melodramas to mourn it.
The film’s surrealist touches, plentiful as they are, feel perfectly in line with Anderson’s sensibilities as both filmmaker and storyteller. In its way, the film is just as digressive and curious about the act of wandering in and of itself as The Master, and yet Anderson manages to find comedy and pathos where that film found only a cold, existential emptiness. Doc bumbles and wanders, his keen instincts scarcely a match for the ruthless efficiency of the changing times, and Inherent Vice follows with him. But this is a superbly controlled burst of chaos, a madcap masterwork that understands well the value of letting an audience wonder without leading it astray. There is a profound depth of feeling to Inherent Vice that it deliberately obscures with wackiness and a tanned, idyllic version of a place built from a nation’s collective imagination, but it’s there all the same. And at the center of it all is Doc, a cockeyed force for good and love, the two things at which the world has started to sneer at the most. He’s an uncynical hero for a tragically cynical time.