When it comes to the work of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, his movies have always been a little….off. The setting, the acting, the writing, the shots and just about everything in a P.T. Anderson picture was always something not seen in the other movies hitting theaters. That’s a good thing, considering Anderson’s near-flawless track record from the shining “Boogie Nights” in 1997 to the bruised darkness of 2012’s “The Master.” When you walk into those or any other of his movies, it only takes about five to ten minutes to recognize the engrossing oddness of an Anderson movie. So with “Inherent Vice,” the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, Anderson may have done the weirdest thing on camera he’s done to date; disguise his directing and get REALLY weird.
The plot itself is very un-Anderson, taking place in Los Angeles, 1970. Private Investigator and public stoner “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets an odd visitor at his beach house; his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She needs Doc to help her find her new boyfriend, wealthy land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who may have been kidnapped and locked in a looney bin by Wolfmann’s wife and her lover. From there, Doc takes a bad trip (pun intended) around LA and meets all the poor souls who lost the Summer of Love to Charlie Manson and Vietnam. Doc’s travels include butting heads with ill-tempered LAPD Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a former saxophone player turned heroin junkie (Owen Wilson), a drug-addled dentist (Martin Short), a maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) and a Deputy D.A. who Doc fools around with (Reese Witherspoon), all narrated by Doc’s friend Sortilege (Joanna Newsom). Not even Doc’s stoned state of mind can protect him from the creeping paranoia and faded sunlight of 1970.
For those unfamiliar with Anderson’s directorial traits, he’s a master at tracking shots and expansive set pieces, basically milking everything out of each set and scene he shoots. Since these are Anderson’s signature styles of directing, it’s odd to see how they are rarely used throughout “Inherent Vice.” He does make sure to capture the impressive recreation of 1970 LA, but not in a dynamic way. The city is certainly a character in the film itself, but it never overtakes the actors in scenes or get shots entirely dedicated to itself. Anderson’s touch as a director is hard to find, almost as if one wouldn’t recognize this as Anderson’s work. He seems to wants no distractions from the story, which is hard enough to keep up with as it is. The more people Doc runs into, the more the mystery seems to fade in the blazed background.
One common trait of Anderson’s films is still very present in “Inherent Vice,” which is great casting. It’s nice to see Joaquin Phoenix, a normally very physical and emotional actor, appear laid back and enjoying himself. He plays Doc like a lovable goof that tries his best to connect the dots in this puzzle despite his dazed demeanor. Phoenix also shows a surprise talent for physical comedy as he gets pushed around by the LAPD while continuously being thrown off by pot and pizza. If “The Naked Gun” was remade as a stoner comedy, Doc Sportello might as well be Frank Drebin. Doc’s agitators are great too, like Josh Brolin’s brutish Detective Bigfoot. His flattop hair and lack of joy in any and all situations is the grumpy gorilla to Doc’s wild chimpanzee. Katherine Waterston (daughter of “Law & Order” favorite Sam Waterston) is radiant as Shasta Fay, the girl that’s impossible to look away from but impossible to have in Doc’s grasp. Even when they’re together Doc and Shasta know this can’t last, saying, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.” Martin Short, who hasn’t had a good movie to call his own since….well since he started his career, is a laugh riot and the funniest part of the whole movie. He snorts and snivels at Doc and the hippies trying hard to find a high. Even if the audience loses track of wherever the plot is during the movie, at least there’s Joanna Newsom’s sweet voice in the background to guide everyone through. She’s the friendly guide in this tour of faded 1970. It helps that she’s got Pynchon’s cool writing to back her up, as her words keep bringing the movie back to its detective-story roots.
Is “Inherent Vice” another perfect piece of Paul Thomas Anderson? Hell no, as it just barely keeps its basic plot line from falling to pieces. But “Inherent Vice” is clearly a passion project for Anderson (he’s stated his adoration of Pynchon on many occasions) that’s not trying to please anyone but the author of the source material and himself. It may divide audiences, but that’s been Anderson’s game since he turned Marky Mark into Dirk Diggler. “Inherent Vice” is at all over the place at its worst, but nostalgic fun at its best. Even with the dark and faded setting of 1970 LA, this is Anderson’s most enjoyable movie in a long time. Anderson’s perfectionism made his movies outstanding, but he’s brilliant even when he gets loopy.
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4 stars