A deconstruction of noir in the vein of The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski, this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel (his first novel to make it to the big screen) is incoherent for the most part but Phoenix and the subtle gags get it over the line.
Doc Sportello (Phoenix) is a private detective who stumbles from one gig to another through the perma-fog of grass smoke at the tail-end of the sixties. An ex (Waterston) turns up asking for a favour: her new boyfriend (Eric Roberts), a big shot real estate agent, has disappeared and she fears that his wife and her boyfriend have had him committed. Doc takes on the job but the search drags the befuddled P.I. into the dark underbelly of L.A.’s counterculture scene. Keeping tabs on Sportello and his consortium of freaks is straight-as-a-die celebrity cop Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Brolin).
When standing back from it all, this is an examination of when the counterculture lost momentum and the hippy dream died – the zonked Doc is presented with a credit card for the first time, Bigfoot eats all his grass, Owen Wilson’s heroin-addicted saxophonist wishes for a ‘normal’ life with kid and wife Jena Malone – but what Inherent Vice has to do with anything beyond that is difficult to assess.
That’s because of the bonkers plot and the bizarre developments consistently catch one unawares. Martin Short’s horny, coke-snorting dentist, Assistant D.A. Reese Witerspoon’s unlikely love interest., Benicio Del Toro’s maritime lawyer, Black Power ex-cons and white supremacists appear to disclose a deluge of confusing information before moving on. Joanna Newsom shows up to offer a sympathetic ear and a strange narration (mostly lifted from Pynchon’s novel). With the narrative impenetrable (at least on first viewing), and a James Ellroy-esque catalogue of names to remember, this labyrinthine rambler is deliberately hard work to keep on top of. With two-and-half hours of no discernible dramatic ups and downs monotony sets in.
But Phoenix, with the shaggy hair, red eyes and impressive sideburns, remains watchable, rooting this crime story in stoner comedy territory. Wearing the pained expression of someone who understands the words being said but not the information, Doc’s Lebowski- esque mannerisms – unfinished sentences, meandering thought process – keep the giggles coming. Perpetually wrecked, he has to keep a notepad handy to scribble down not just important clues but that he’s not paranoid or that he’s maybe hallucinating. Anderson burrows his way into the mind of a stoner with the most tenuous of loose ends and obscure of hints becoming bona fide clues. This is all fun.
There’s a lot to like here – but there’s too much of it.