’70s counterculture detective yarn is one heck of a trip, man
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon & Katherine Waterston
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A swirling, swingin’ sleuthing tale set at the dawn of the ‘70s on the seedy coastal side of Los Angeles, Inherent Vice stars Joaquin Phoenix as a keep-on-truckin’ private investigator coasting on a cloud of dope smoke, Josh Brolin as a hippie-hating L.A.P.D. detective who likes licking on chocolate-covered bananas, and a cavalcade of other characters who pop in and out to move the story along.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark-comedy adaptation of author Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 crime-noir/counterculture novel is a thing of cinematic achievement, fitting in comfortably with his other critically lauded films, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Boogie Nights. And it’s also one heck of a trip, man.
Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, who’s hired by a damsel in distress, his ex-lover Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, actor Sam’s daughter), to investigate the disappearance of her new boyfriend, a wealthy real-estate tycoon, possibly arranged by his wife. But when Shasta Fey also goes missing, Doc realizes that he’s dealing with a love triangle that’s become an even bigger, much more unwieldy geometric tangle.
How much bigger, and how complex? Well, there are Nazis, black power groups, a mysterious offshore schooner, a cabal of heroin-smuggling dentists, a surf-saxophone legend (Owen Wilson) who’s faked his own death, Eric Roberts in a looney bin, Reese Witherspoon as a federal district attorney who likes an occasional walk on the wild side, and a massage-parlor hoochie-coochie mama whispering a cryptic warning: “Beware the Golden Fang.”
As Doc tries to sort out who’s who and what’s what, things keep getting weirder and wilder. The characters’ names give you some idea of the story’s stoned-out La-La-Land twists and turns: Michael W. Wolfmann, Sauncho Smilax, Coy Harlingen, Rudy Blatnoyd, Puck Beaverton.
Brolin, with a perpetual scowl and a serious crew cut, nearly steals the show as Lt. Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who also moonlights as an actor (watch for him late in the movie cropping up in a “doctored” episode of Adam-12). Phoenix sports a set of mutton-chop sideburns that look like they’re about to invade his mouth at any moment. Funnyman Martin Short gets only 10 minutes onscreen as a lecherous dentist, but he makes the most of every second. Witherspoon and Phoenix have one entire conversation against the backdrop of a country song, Jack Scott’s “Burning Bridges,” which seems to be a nod to not only their relationship in the movie, but also their previous co-starring roles as John and June Carter Cash in Walk The Line (2005).
Phoenix worked with Anderson previously, in The Master, and the two have another fine synergy here. As Doc stumbles, unwashed and unkempt, through the case, he’s also stumbling through the end of an era, the come-together, flower-power ‘60s, and into another, the uncertain, unhinged ‘70s. Doc knows the times, they are a-changin’—and that wistful, wayward, weed-saturated vibe seeps into everything about Inherent Vice.
The story takes its title, we learn, from a maritime term about a piece of cargo’s hidden defect, something that makes it an unacceptable risk to insure. People—and places, relationships, even moments in time—can be defective, too, can spoil and go bad, as Doc knows all too well. But the defective, “damaged goods” Inherent Vice parades on screen only adds to the fractured fun of its hippy-dippy, time-tripping yarn.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine