Doc Sportello ain’t a do-gooder, as one of the trailer lines for Inherent Vice sings, but he’s done good. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie doesn’t seem to match up with anything else he’s done, tempting though it may be to shove it in the same category with Boogie Nights simply because they’re both comedies. There’s a little Boogie in there, for sure – there’s also mid-’80s Leslie Nielsen zaniness, a bit of Robert Altman, a bit of early Guy Ritchie, a bit of everything. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sofa-riding P.I. suddenly embroiled in a kidnapping/murder case that’s way, way over his head. The moving parts of the case are as perplexing to Doc as those of the film proper might be to us, and when Doc gives up trying to make sense of it all is about the time we do the same.
So, yeah: Inherent Vice has Jewish real estate moguls, ex-convicts, flat-topped cops, Japanese drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, doped-up dentists, maritime lawyers and an increasingly large cross-section of people known from San Fran to San Diego with clear disdain or clear indifference as hippies. There are loan sharks, FBI agents, tenor sax players. There’s a big boat which might be called The Golden Fang, might not. How could these disparate agencies possibly be connected?
Fact is, these things are connected in the normal, uninteresting and understandable (if not comprehensible) way that any other things are connected. People know other people, they’ve been to the same places, heard the same things, smoked the same grass. There’s no small dose of coincidence, sure — but this isn’t exactly a conspiracy, certainly not in the way Doc peers through the pot haze and perceives it to be. Even if you walk away from Inherent Vice disliking the film, there’s little doubt that what’s in focus here isn’t the investigation or the plot but the flavor, the feeling, the mood of it all.
And that mood is by turns joyous, carefree, uncertain, paranoid, melancholy, and back to joyous. The script is nowhere near as noirishly sleek or fast-paced or straight-up impressive as that of The Big Sleep — which might, on paper, be the film most similar to this — but the Southern Cali of Inherent Vice was never meant to be populated by sharp or well-spoken people. Like The Big Lebowski, it’s populated by idiots — and those idiots still happen to be massively entertaining. The cast is phenomenal and phenomenally utilized, and while few characters besides Doc get extended screentime they all manage to make their mark. Josh Brolin as the “Renaissance Cop” Bigfoot is the consistent scene-stealer, and he’s impossibly funny in every appearance. Katherine Waterston’s Shasta is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but she’s got a hell of a smile that makes you mostly ignore her acting.
A major contributor to the overall mood outside of the impressive casting is the way Anderson packs each scene with little background gags that seem mostly at home in Airplane! or The Naked Gun. Doc visits a mental institution at one point (where the sign above the door says STRAIGHT IS HIP) and no one ever acknowledges the security guards walking around the asylum campus — they’re dressed like Jesus and they’re carrying assault rifles. The presence of things like this is barely noticeable, but if you do notice it will undoubtedly make you grin. To be fair, the conversation going on in the foreground is just as inconsequential (“Mr. Sportello! Welcome. Would you like to use the facilities? Our bathroom? Use our facilities before our tour of the facility?”) There’s another scene where Doc enters an interrogation room with three FBI agents, and while Doc mumbles one of the agents starts picking his nose. “Aren’t we in the same business?” Doc asks. The second agent picks his nose as the first gets defensive: “Let’s not be insulting.” Doc rolls his eyes and squirms as the first two agents launch into questioning, the third in the background picking his nose.
Noteworthy, too, is that there are very few scenes in which multiple people have conversations — 90% of the time it’s just Doc one-on-one with someone else. Everything hinges on Doc, and it’s in this structuring that the film can begin to drag a bit. The vibrancy that overflows from the screen in any scene with Bigfoot is that much more noticeably absent from scenes between Doc and Shasta, and a sort of faux-ending between those two at the two-hour mark (during which they discuss “inherent vice”) makes the last half-hour seem almost like a different movie. But that’s still chalked up to the way Paul Thomas Anderson crafted the thing, doling out those moods of paranoia and carefree joy with as much ease as Doc rolling a joint — which is to say it’s not always easy.
Inherent Vice either clicks or it doesn’t, or it sorta does, or you think it does, or you really want it to, or it’s a soupy mixture of all of that. I’ve read a good handful of scathing reviews since the screening — “a meandering non-starter” is a descriptor that stuck with me, deployed as damningly as possible. It’s a tad frustrating that the plot of Inherent Vice is so purposefully impenetrable, because the comeback to simplified qualms like that can never be “oh, let me explain it to you”. You can’t explain it in a way that will make it click with everyone, but I actually think that’s a point in favor. Vice is personal, and after a certain point Doc’s investigation doesn’t matter at all. He’s done good, and what matters is Doc himself. Doc’s a good guy but he ain’t a smart one, and it might just be enough if someone were to say that about me. Inherent Vice has little hope of being “understood” in any other context than this. Doc has no idea what’s going on, and neither do I.