Something's a little off in Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic excursion into the literary wilds of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. It's tough to pinpoint where the equilibrium goes flooey, mostly because Anderson — the best and most audaciously original filmmaker of his generation — can't compose a dull shot or one that doesn't pulsate with the infinite mathematical possibilities for fucking up that circulate within the human psyche. Inherent Vice is packed with shitfaced hilarity, soulful reveries, stylistic ingenuity and smashing performances that keep playing back in your head. It may not demand repeat viewings, but it sure as hell rewards them. It's the work of a major talent.
And yet, it's a struggle. If forced to diagnose the problem, I'll have to go with Anderson's understandable, if excessive loyalty to Pynchon, a gnarly genius of a writer whose near-Joycean language defies translation into other forms. The filmmaker takes babysteps into the minefields erected by the hermit author, 77, who rivals J.D. Salinger in reclusiveness. Anderson is not climbing the Pynchon mountain, the Old Testament of cyberpunk that is Gravity's Rainbow. Inherent Vice is regarded as a playful throwaway. It's set in Southern California in 1970 (Anderson's birth year) just as the psychedelic Age of Aquarius with its peace-love-stoned sense of community is being replaced by the decade of Manson, Altamont, Nixon and Me Me Me. Inherent Vice is a film noir laced with pot and shrooms and the sense of lost ideals. And, yeah, lost fun too. It's definitely in Anderson's wheelhouse.
It would be a kick to see Anderson take this material and go it alone. But Pynchon is with him at every turn and right from the start. The setup intros us to our guide, Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private eye in a perpetual haze in his beach bungalow. Phoenix, unwashed and unfettered, plays him to the manner born. A visitor wakes Doc. She's his former flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth, played with slinky carnality by Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam). Like every dame in the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, she needs help. But wait. Before we get the plot moving, we get voiceover. It comes from Doc's ex-assistant, Sortilege (singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom). She has things to tell us about Shasta:
"She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she'd never look."
It's lovely stuff, gorgeously rendered by Newsom. But the words are straight from Pynchon, the very first paragraph of his book, and the movie stops to let us hear them. Anderson is tipping his hat to Pynchon, which he will do frequently, but this PTA enthusiast yearns to see him show, not tell. In his six previous films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master), Anderson let the stories flow from his own fervid imagination. There Will Be Blood drew on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil, but barely and not so as you'd recognize it. Inherent Vice plays like a collaboration, a sign of respect to a virtuoso. It's Anderson's first constricted film, the one that never completely breaks free.
And yet, the movie's pleasures are undeniable. The plot, such as it is, kicks in when Shasta persuades Doc to find to find her new love, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real-estate tycoon whose wife wants him institutionalized. The search leads through an L.A. turf brimming with the surfers, New-Agers, Nazi bikers, acid heads, tax-dodging dentists and mysterious consortium called the Golden Fang. The mood has the loose, easy feel of 1973's The Long Goodbye, a hypnotic update on Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) from Anderson's beloved mentor, Robert Altman. You can barely stop and smell the patchouli before the inevitable pileup of characters — a coke-addled dentist (a terrific Martin Short,) with a thing for an underage heiress (Sasha Pieterse), a missing musician (Owen Wilson) with a junkie wife (Jenna Malone), an assistant D.A. (Reese Witherspoon) who takes Doc to bed, and a lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) who keeps Doc on the go. It's definitely overload, but I still missed the book's Las Vegas interlude. I also missed the period atmosphere since the great cinematographer Robert Elswit is mostly restricted to closeups.
The actors earn the close attention, most of all Josh Brolin, who gives the film a seismic charge as buzz-cut cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, who does extra work on the TV series Adam-12. Not only does Brolin get big laughs, he breaks your heart when he finally opens up to Doc about who he really is.
There you have it. Inherent Vice, brilliantly scored by Jonny Greenwood, is an Anderson head trip, impure jazz with a reverb that can leave you dazed, confused and even annoyed. But at no time do you doubt that you are in the hands of a master.