“Thinking comes later,” mumbles Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) at the start of Paul Thomas Anderson’s foggy, funny film of Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelia-noir Inherent Vice, only he never quite gets around to it. A lot of things get in his way, you see, from the moment that his ex-old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, an angelic , transfixing moonbeam of a smile but with not much to do here) lays on him a whole rap about needing help with her new old man. In the grand tradition of beautiful women whose true motives are submerged beneath shimmering layers of twinkle, Shasta’s initial request is more complicated and dangerous than it initially seems, particularly after she goes missing. Doc’s journey starts off being about making sure that Shasta (clearly the love of his life, though neither of them may know or want to know it) is okay, it turns into a quasi-historical tour of a Southern California counterculture circa 1970 on the verge of imploding under the weight of its own bafflement and paranoia.
Doc doesn’t investigate Shasta’s disappearance so much as trips and stumbles through lucky encounters with one exposition-spouting secondary character after another. The gallery of bit players leading Doc through the dark garden of Shasta’s mystery is richly populated, from an ex-con black militant, perky massage parlor girl, and coke-snorting dentist to various runaways, drug dropouts and other 1960s refugees trying to find their way in a harsher decade. Performances are generally electric if sometimes beside the point, ranging from showy cameos (Martin Short hoovering up coke) to sly interlopers like Benicio Del Toro reinterpreting his Dr. Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Doc’s even-more-stoned “marine lawyer.” The parade of new faces with stories to tell keeps jolting the murky, is-it-real plot out of the quiescence.
The plot is twined around Shasta’s guy, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real estate mogul with Nazi bodyguards and a plastic-faced wife who’s plotting to have him committed after a late bout of morals has him wanting to give his fortune away. While looking into the Wolfmann case, Doc starts pulling at a threaded conspiracy whose strands include the Aryan Brotherhood and an international dope-smuggling ring who might also (in an impressive bit of capitalistic invention) be bankrolling quasi-cultish drug-treatment clinics. True to Pynchon’s novel, it all plays out against a landscape where the hippie groovitude exemplified by Doc’s network of laidback dropouts is starting to crack under an assault of Nixonian police-state counter-insurgency and rapacious market forces. It’s a big California story, which Anderson’s big-tent approach would seem uniquely qualified to handle.
What Anderson can’t do, though, is capture the densely layered textures of Pynchon’s references. You can put all the Neil Young or Can on the soundtrack that you want (in between songs like those and Jonny Greenwood’s score, the music always sounds on the verge of ripping into a mean Doors riff that frustratingly never comes) and it won’t by itself transport you to the 1970s.
Trying for period authenticity with all his might, Phoenix plays Doc as a cannabis casualty about one bad hallucination from full-on freakout, writing terrified notes to himself during interviews with clients instead of taking down details about the case. Fortunately for him, he’s a likable sort and so is able to get by. As with many crime stories, he’s irresistible to women, not one of whom seems able to come on screen without making a play for him (though both the women he sleeps with seem to be following some kind of punishment/degradation fantasy). Phoenix can’t find the right groove to slip into here between dazed and cagey, and it leaves his character adrift. The book’s Doc is out of it but often in a born-under-a-lucky-star Colombo sort of way, always surprising people’s low expectations. The film’s Doc is more bumbling fool; entertaining enough but hardly intriguing.
Like many a good fictional private eye, Doc has a rewarding, brotherly love-hate relationship with a member of the local constabulary. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is a terse, rage-fueled, flat-topped detective who enjoys nothing more “after a long day of civil rights violations” than hassling hippies like Doc. Bigfoot is caught between two worlds like some mix of straight-arrow Jack Webb and L.A. Confidential’s spotlight-seeking “Trashcan” Jack Vincennes. He claims to despise “hippie scum” but clearly gets a kick out of Doc’s renegade ways and harbors dreams of his own with a sideline as TV pitch man and extra (Anderson digitally inserts him into an Adam-12 episode). Brolin’s crackling energy steals the show many times over; a difficult task in a film so replete with talent that it can leave even the likes of Owen Wilson (as a musician turned informant, another great conflicted) on the sidelines.
For the first time since his one-two punch of Altman-esque epics (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), Anderson has returned to packing the screen with a small carnival’s worth of vivid, lost souls trying to find themselves in the Angeleno sprawl. But for the first time, his focus is less than razor-sharp. What should have been another great shaggy-dog, substance-baked, Southern California private-eye film in the against-the-grain tradition of The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski starts and ends in verbal confusion fuzzed by love and fear. That’s as any great mystery should. The problem here isn’t that the enigma at its core is never quite solved, fully understood, or even terribly relevant. It’s not the solution but the search that energizes most mysteries. By spending too much time just tracking its baffled searcher and not enough on comprehending him or the landscape he’s stumbling through, Inherent Vice only skirts greatness instead of fully embracing it.