Joaquin Phoenix roams around Inherent Vice as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator seemingly hired (or heckled) by everyone he encounters. Doc’s ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend has gone missing so Shasta shows up at his door one night claiming her new boyfriend’s wife’s boyfriend had something to do with it. I think. But the plot doesn’t really matter. Or does it? Robert Elswit’s remarkable and unobtrusive cinematography has a perpetual haziness to it, a fitting adjective for Inherent Vice as a whole.
Keeping track of Doc’s constant sleuthing (drug addled roaming) is nearly impossible. I found its impenetrability less a frustration and more an invitation to go along for the ride. Paul Thomas Anderson has always been a superb actor’s director but here he coaxes out wonderful performances from his entire cast, with nostalgia and melancholy creeping through the cracks of the perpetually buzzed characters. From Jena Malone’s ex-heroin addict to Owen Wilson’s tentative hippie, it is all absurdly but beautifully crafted. The constant tangents (pure Pynchon) from all characters, and stoned-muffling from Doc makes Inherent Vice impossible to solve. But it is also outrageously hilarious. The color, uniqueness, and incoherence of the host of characters ensures this, and every facial expression from Joaquin Phoenix had me stifling a snicker.
As hilarious and absurd as it is what makes Inherent Vice truly special is its empathy for its characters. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an outrageous banana fellating Josh Brolin) is a right-wing LAPD detective with a military cut to match. He and Doc have an adversarial relationship (they couldn’t be more different) and yet Anderson treats them both with respect, humility, and empathy. He’s maturing as a filmmaker, and the film comes off as a masterpiece fully disinterested in being one. The camera is unobtrusive, with Anderson favoring long takes and close-ups, letting the characters speak for themselves, betraying a genuine adoration of Thomas Pynchon’s source material.
It sounds as absurd as the film itself, but for a movie so absolutely whacky Inherent Vice is packed full of humanity. Amidst the screwball chaos, impenetrable noir, and endless laughs there are these characters, all lost souls in some way. Its subtle cadence lulled me in. I didn’t realize how much I adored it until two-thirds of the way through. Its sense of humor and style is wonderful (Doc’s sandals and Bigfoot’s chocolate banana are often too much to handle) but Inherent Vice’s true excellence lies in its gnawing melancholy that sticks like its hazy, grimy, beautiful atmosphere long after the credits have rolled.