Even if you were not around during the 1970s, Inherent Vice comes across as a faded, nostalgic memory. Being a faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, the film recounts the dying days of the free love era, laced with the look, feel and paraphernalia of the subculture. Anderson’s comedic thriller peppers itself with restless, almost out of place laughter, while dedicating itself to the themes of the early Seventies. One is reminded of private-eye classics such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with traces of Zucker-Abrahams comedies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun. For many, the homage to 1970s filmmaking will be a very real and thrilling look down memory lane. For others, it’ll be a history lesson like no other found in modern day filmmaking.
Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), like so many of the film noir heroes of which 70s Hollywood was trying to preserve and emulate, finds himself running mindlessly around a tight maze of lies and trickery. And like Philip Marlowe, Doc is head over heels in a case he can hardly comprehend, whether or not drugs are playing a contributing factor. An old girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), suspects her lover’s wife is plotting to steal his fortune, and she asks Doc to uncover the details. Just when things start to make sense, Shasta and her lover (Eric Roberts) both go missing, and the trail leads Doc to the schooner ‘Golden Fang’, where everything may not be what it seems. With L.A. cop ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) hot on his tail, Doc becomes more and more paranoid by the realities he must face, let alone the mounting pot influence.
In hindsight, what the audience receives is an agglomeration of heightened surrealism mixed with a suspension of disbelief. Our point of view is that of Doc’s psyche, no matter how spaced-out and foggy it may seem. With every twist and turn to this layered story, the viewer is unfolding the facts just as quickly as our pothead protagonist.
The comedic tropes are taken just as seriously as the film’s actual plot. When Brolin’s Bigfoot eats a chocolate-covered banana in a homoerotic fashion, it’s Doc’s reaction of pure disgust that makes the moment completely hysterical. When Doc’s face quickly goes deadpan after yelping from seeing a picture of Hope Harlingen’s (Jena Malone) heroin-poisoned daughter, laughter becomes the only suitable reaction to these moments of inappropriate behavior.
Familiar faces, like Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro, weave in and out of Anderson’s dense fog of a film, while Pynchon’s narration (delivered by Joanna Newsom) muddles the central conflict beyond conceivable recognition – at least on a first viewing. Underneath the constant banter, there is something more to digest. Beyond the pushy gags and nostalgic imagery, there is a story here that can only be sharpened and appropriately acknowledged on a second or third viewing.
Even if judgment is uncertain on an initial rendezvous, one thing’s for sure – this film is special. It’s a special delight for P.T. Anderson fans, since it encapsulates everything we have come to love about his filmography. The film has the madcap antics of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, but combined with the historic pristine qualities of The Master and There Will Be Blood. Inherent Vice is the best of both these worlds, and, like many of Anderson’s films, will require multiple viewings to understand just how brilliant it actually is.
— Christopher Clemente
(originally published during our NYFF coverage)