Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, opens on a shot of Gordita Beach in 1970. The location is fictional, but the time period isn’t. Anderson and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for lensing Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), have managed to recreate Los Angeles, gloriously captured on 35mm film as though they shot it in 1970, with little of the digital trickery that tends to make movies look so unreal these days.
The ocean is viewed from a bungalow belonging to Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a lovelorn, mutton-chopped private dick who mumbles his way through cases not unlike Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe did in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, a 1973 film that’s a close antecedent to Inherent Vice. But disheveled as Gould was, his Marlowe was a suit and (loosened) tie man, while Doc is correctly described as a “dirty, filthy hippy ” by his sometime squeeze, deputy district attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon).
Doc is introduced to us by Sortilège (singer Joanna Newsom), who first appears bathed in the California sun as she begins a running narration that will continue throughout the film. Using Pynchon’s inimitable descriptions from his 2009 book, she guides us toward our first view of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), Anderson’s version of a femme fatale. Doc lies on his back as Shasta makes her entrance, unsure if he’s hallucinating.
The music, composed by Anderson’s regular collaborator, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, lends a somber tone to this melancholic meeting that carries through the rest of the film, which nails the sadness that’s a benchmark of Pynchon’s work. Anderson sustains the mood throughout—that is, when he isn’t making you laugh. His picture is nothing if not an absurdist’s delight.
“I need your help, Doc,” says leggy bombshell Shasta, who also happens to be his ex. Currently the girlfriend of real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), she wants Doc to thwart a plot to kidnap the billionaire land developer that involves Wolfmann’s bronzed wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her even more bronzed lover (Andrew Simpson).
After Shasta departs in her Cadillac ragtop, Doc joins Sortilège at a beachfront pizza parlor, where our narrator—who once worked in Doc’s office—recommends he do something new: “Change your hair, change your life.” Back on his couch, as Doc fashions himself a perm in front of his TV, we get our first glimpse of conservative, buzz-cut Lt. Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, never better), who moonlights after “a day of civil rights violations” as the pitchman for Channel View Estates—a Wolfmann property. The commercial finds Bigfoot bedecked in psychedelic hippie garb. “Far out, man,” he says at the end of the spot, peering directly at the leading man, intoning “What’s up, Doc?”
If you haven’t guessed, Doc’s got a drug habit, and if he suffers from the occasional hallucination, it fits in nicely with Pynchon’s trippy prose. And although Sortilège fills much of the same role she does in the novel, where Pynchon describes her as being able to “diagnose and solve all manner of problems,” concluding that “she always seemed to know things that nobody else knew,” I remain blissfully unaware as to whether most of her expanded appearances in Anderson’s adaptation occur anywhere other than in Doc’s drug-addled mind. Certainly, she clarifies clues and corrects misinterpretations for the stoned gumshoe—make that gum-sandal—but her tendency to disappear mid-conversation from the passenger seat of his moving vehicle might leave literal-minded viewers thinking the movie more Incoherent Vice than the scruffy masterpiece it is.
Fortuitously, Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), a member of the “Black Guerrilla Family,” shows up at Doc’s medical office looking for help tracking down one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards, a neo-Nazi Tariq did time with. This leads Doc to a desert massage parlor, where he has the first of many encounters with Jade (comic spitfire and BU grad Hong Chau), who warns him to “beware the Golden Fang”—which might be a yacht, an Indo-Chinese heroin cartel or perhaps a “syndicate of dentists set up long ago for tax purposes,” according to oral hygienist/cokehead Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short, recalling the deranged Dr. Verringer in The Long Goodbye).
Wolfmann disappears, and so does Shasta; both may be dead, along with surf-sax legend Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who becomes part of the sprawling, meandering mystery when his recovering addict wife, Hope (Jena Malone), enlists Doc to find out what happened to him. Much of the movie hinges on the fate of the Harlingens and their infant daughter, as Doc realizes that he might be able to repair something he may never find for himself: a family.
And as viewers of Anderson’s films know, fractured families, both by blood and adopted, are the beating heart of his somber tales—from Boogie Nights to Magnolia, There Will Be Blood to The Master. And as with many extended families, it might take more than one look to piece together the connections at play here. But then, this is a movie that rewards multiple viewings, where the lingering questions might amount to “Inherent twice, or Inherent thrice?”
Inherent Vice ****
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Jordan Christian Hearn, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Jeannie Berlin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Hong Chau, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jefferson Mays, Peter McRobbie, Keith Jardine, Sasha Pieterse, Martin Donovan and Martin Short. Adapted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon. Opens in Boston on Jan. 9.