Inherent Vice (2014) is all about mood. The movie, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a fever dream inside a bad trip on top of a psychedelic freak-out locked away in a kaleidoscopic booby hatch. Is it about anything? I’m not sure. Does it have a story? Not a recognizable one. Does it bring us along for the ride? For the most part.
I’m not sure there could be a movie about Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) that isn’t imperfect. It’s 1970 and private eye Doc seems to have been burnt out for some time. He’s the kind of guy who has to remind himself in his notes that he’s not having an hallucination. With a hero detective who can’t tell what’s real or not the movie happily gives us a plot filled with so many wrinkles and intrigues it would be hard to keep up stone sober. Except, like Doc, we’re not. The movie presents its drug-addled haze unlike any I’ve ever seen before, instead of frenetic energy or blurry slow motion, we get a world that seems like ours except that its saturated in yellow and populated by the strangest people and circumstances. Doc knocks around them like a pinball trying, as we are, to keep up but not trying so hard that he’ll turn down drugs when they’re offered to him.
What we know is that out of the blue (the yellowed blue, anyway) Doc’s ex-old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston) pays him a visit. She’s been sleeping with Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a powerful real estate magnate who is somehow involved with the Aryan Brotherhood (interesting, as Wolfmann is Jewish). Shasta is worried for Wolfmann’s life; she thinks that his wife and her lover are plotting against him. She thinks this because they asked her if she wanted to be cut in on the deal. From this little seed sprouts a massive, multi-limbed tree (or fanning marijuana leaf, anyway), that includes a disappeared presumed dead saxophonist named Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), the fiery DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) who changes her tone with Doc (and hair color it seems) depending on the sexual mood she’s in. Soon Wolfmann indeed goes missing and so does Shasta, and Doc goes down a spiral slide of bizarre circumstances in which bodies begin to pile up but mysteries pile up even more.
We visit sex shops and head shops, foggy docks and pristine rehabilitation facilities, but everything is always a front for something else, including a consortium of dentists led by the moony Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. (Martin Short, or in this case, Martin Snort), who, through unexplainable circumstances, reveals himself as the worst person you can have with you when the cops show up. Speaking of cops, lingering over Doc’s investigation is Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a straight-laced hippy hater who has a flattop you could lathe wood on. Bigfoot can barely hide his disdain for the way the world has gone to pot and doesn’t bother hiding his disdain for Doc, though we find as the movie goes on that that disdain is more complicated than it first appears. He is rarely without a frozen chocolate banana and goes to a Japanese deli for pancakes, not because they’re good, but because the staff respects him there.
At the center of everything is Doc who, for better or worse, is our champion in all this. He is the kind of special species of human that relieves some worry I have about us. The existence of Doc Sportellos makes me believe the human race can survive anything. Surely, we question how Doc scratches out a living. During almost the entire length of Inherent Vice, I kept wondering who was paying Doc, so many of the people who engage his services go missing. I’m not worried so much about Doc but about Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph), Doc’s eponymously named secretary who, in a few scenes suggests a lot of admiration and a lot of concern for our hero. A great movie could be made about the untold mysteries between those two.
The funny thing about Inherent Vice (and the movie is often very funny) is that it frankly isn’t interested in its mystery. We get the feeling that Doc is a good investigator, he has strong instincts and an observant eye, but he can’t keep himself clean long enough to put all the pieces together. He’s like Monk, if OCD were dope. Strange things happen and bizarre things are said around him but he’s too conked to recognize if they’re real or not so he doesn’t respond to them. When he comes around a prostitute (Hong Chau, making the most of a small part) looking for a missing man, she asks him, “Does he eat pussy?” and he blinks a few times, upset with himself that he didn’t arrive with that information. I was also reminded of Marge Gunderson from Fargo (1996), not because Doc possesses any of Marge’s drive but because both investigators are defined by their space. Marge’s talents are too big for Brainard; Doc makes no sense anywhere other than Los Angeles.
The impressive thing about the filmmaking is that Anderson is somehow able to assimilate us into this hazy deluge and keep adding plot twists and characters with bizarre names until we throw our hands up and give up our reservations for a traditional pot-boiler. Watching the movie then becomes a physical experience, disorienting like drunkness, as if we had been handed 10 shots in succession then were asked to do long division. We can see the figures but we don’t stay long enough in one place to get a bead on them. The fascinating phenomenon is that this never stumbles over the line into frustration. Anderson is reading the blueprint from his idle Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), a Philip Marlowe flick, but the movie reminded me more of The Big Sleep (1946), also Marlowe, which is another chemically-altered hard-boiled LA tale, in which the details of what’s going on are secondary to the overall mood. Where Inherent Vice fails is that it is isn’t quite prepared to be as bleak as the previous picture—everyone is too stoned to notice the fatalism. It wants to be completely indulgent but is ill-prepared for the consequences. It can’t throw out the rules but still reap the rewards those rules protect so when it asks for genuine feeling it finds there’s none there.
These rocks dash the end of our voyage but they do not sink it because the characters are so interesting and the filmmaking is so brisk that the endeavor remains perfectly buoyant. This isn’t about drugs (people are high here the way Arthur is drunk); it’s not about real estate or Aryans or hippies and straights or ex-old ladies or anything. It’s about what you can pick out from the haze. It’s about whatever you can see clearly for even a few minutes before it’s back to cops gobbling pot from a serving dish narrated by a far-out astrologist. There aren’t any answers here, it’s hard to discern if there are even any questions, but what is here, whatever it is, is worth watching.