Smoky "Inherent Vice" Leaves Indelible Impression

As human beings we’re wired to look to our most talented artists for meaning, for great unspoken truths. It’s instinctive. It’s natural. And it usually pays off. But what happens when one of those artists willfully fashions a paradox whose only apparent meaning is in its meaninglessness? “Inherent Vice” happens, the latest film from powerhouse writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”).

Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s well-received novel, “Inherent Vice” is a self-described stoner detective yarn that chronicles a few months in the life of Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an incessantly baked SoCal private investigator. As the calendar turns from 1969 to 1970, Doc determinedly carries his hippie-ness with him into the new decade, Panama hat, mutton chops, and rolling papers in tow. After a brief, dreamlike encounter with his long lost love Shasta (Katherine Waterson), she goes missing, along with the mysterious real estate developer (Eric Roberts) she may or may not be romancing.

From there the story pinballs between police blotter acid procedural and leisurely seriocomedy, introducing an array of quirky but never quite ridiculous characters. Josh Brolin steals a number of scenes as the insecure, flat-topped, chocolate-covered banana-loving celebrity cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, while Owen Wilson delivers a delightfully understated performance as Coy Harlingen, the doper-slash-musician who might be more than he seems.

The nonsensical plot is little more than a magic carpet for transporting its characters – we’re meant to be as confused as Doc is – leaving all to be indelibly captured by Anderson as they wander through the haze. The pic’s visuals rival “The Master” as Anderson’s most engaging to date. From Doc’s seaside abode to his starkly blank, smoke-filled workspace, each setting is immaculately photographed to inform us of each character’s whacked-out headspace, effortlessly dropping us into another time and place.

The soundtrack is equally compelling, often spiking or droning to match the intensity – or lack thereof – of each scene, with songs slowly fading into the background or cascading into a distant buzz of amplifier feedback.

The film’s 147 minutes mostly defy quantification, reliably wafting out of the screen like Doc’s steady exhalations. Anderson’s love of long takes doesn’t work quite as well here as in films past – the slowly creeping camera is painfully apparent in a few scenes – but the dearth of cutting adds to the atmosphere, allowing the actors to play with the space as if in a stage play. A really groovy, smoked out stage play.

Of all the pic’s intentionally laborious plotting, only a gratuitously long nude scene from Waterston stands out as miscalculation, but even it’s striking and never less than memorable. And any film in which Reese Witherspoon and Benicio del Toro are footnotes is intrinsically worth the discussion. As mere pawns in an expansive supporting cast, their misplaced star power expertly fans the flames of audience incredulity. It’s not hard to imagine Anderson sitting behind the camera laughing as he uses del Toro as a glorified serial sidekick.

If “Inherent Vice” is a master filmmaker taking the piss, more would do well to follow suit. “Vice” might not overflow with substance – at least not metaphorically – but it is an audio-visual tour de force, a frequently hilarious stoner comedy, and a pretty terrific character piece anchored by one of the best leading men in his generation.Joaquin Phoenix is in literally every scene of this 147-minute not-really-drama, not-exactly-comedy, one that he carries without a moment’s hesitation.

Its avalanche of idiosyncrasies might make it tough sledding for general audiences, but for trippy, glassblown noir, “Inherent Vice” is a prime cut. Leave it to Paul Thomas Anderson to chisel something so unforgettable from a story about a private eye who can’t remember a damn thing.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 12, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Martin Short
MPAA Rating: R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence)