Peace, Love, Entropy: Inherent Vice

12/03/2014 7:00 AM |
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros


Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Opens December 12

“Then the blue shadows will fall all over town,” runs a line from “Any Day Now,” a pop lament for a lover who’s left for good, and played over the end credits for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest sui generis, funny-sad feature. As Doc Sportello, P.I., in Inherent Vice Joaquin Phoenix makes his first, mutton-chopped appearance bathed in a dread blue, right when that certain someone (Katherine Waterston) turns up one night with a problem that sends him on a Thomas Pynchon whirligig-wander through connections and conspiracies and suspicions dimly perceived through pot smoke and California glare. While it’s all set on “Gordita Beach, 1970,” at the hyper-chronicled and -mythologized long goodbye to the 60’s and its cultural-political flameouts, the heart of Inherent Vice beats (or palpitates) with Doc’s concern for one Shasta Fay of the heavy lids and rueful pained expression.

Or, as Joanna Newsom’s voiceover has it, curling like smoke round the film’s fully inhabited shuffling scenes, Shasta’s “heavy combination of face ingredients.” A filmmaker who’s as fanatically followed as his authorial source here, Anderson makes lovely work out of Pynchon’s lazing games of paranoia, drawling counterculture nostalgia, and goofballing, reportedly by treating the novel’s hundreds of pages as a kind of found text to scissor a screenplay out of. It’s been a while since I cared less about a plot in an American film as quickly as with Inherent Vice, which frontloads, for Doc’s and our blinking half-comprehension, twice-told tales entangling real estate schemes, a crewcut cop (Josh Brolin), an FBI informant (Owen Wilson), a heroin syndicate, and the flotsam and jetsam of the moment. Where it stops, nobody knows, but Doc’s sweet stoner persistence, in the name of a lost love and train of thought, carries us through.

Like The Master, Inherent Vice opens with the inner-space sound of ocean waves, and part of what makes Anderson’s adaptation stay in its two-hour-plus groove is an exquisite synchrony of sound sidling along with image, from that voiceover to the seemingly already-present pop songs (including, eccentrically but perfectly, Can) to Phoenix’s every little slide and slur and what. Some characters in Anderson’s parade seem walk-on comic conceits or faces attached to voices materializing from the street that might as well be in Doc’s head (shades again of Pynchon’s gleeful sprinkling of ludicrous cameos), but the filmmaker brings out some extraordinary turns with Martin Short as a druggy dentist, or Eric Roberts as impossibly far-gone realtor Mickey Wolfmann, or Reese Witherspoon as a perfectly bunned square attorney/cynic (and Doc’s current attachment).

Doc’s a worthy successor to the curious specimens of The Master, There Will Be Blood, and even Punch-Drunk Love, maybe the last time Anderson has struck a primarily comedic note and with echoes of the same longing. And he inhabits a richly illustrated world, cartoonish but still careworn at the edges, and in the lines and grizzle of Doc’s face and the uncalm of its long takes. You could try to laugh it all off, though Inherent Vice won’t actually float long enough on a steady chuckle (even if Anderson saves his most monstrously funny scene for just near the end). Love, we hear in the film with no small irony, is an overused word in this era and milieu, but it’s still what lingers when all the smoke clears.