In Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s barmy, brilliant and oblique adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s equally difficult novel, there is an expression that Joaquin Phoenix pulls at nearly every given opportunity. Phoenix plays ‘Doc’ Sportello, a layabout private eye on the hunt for an elusive person of interest, and whenever faced with events beyond his understanding, he contorts his face into a horrified mask of confusion, bewilderment and apprehensive awe – which is all the time, in Anderson’s bewitching movie. It’s also the face you’ll be making for nearly the entirety of the generous 148-minute run time.
It’s LA in 1970, and Doc’s ex-girlfriend visits him in the night, informing him of a dastardly plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer, Micky Wolffman (Eric Roberts). And that is as much of the plot as we’re going to understand, for Doc is thrown into the deep end of a much larger web of deceit, greed, and sex, in no small part thanks to his own curiosity. We see everything through Doc’s eyes, and are just as baffled as he is when we uncover further leads that spiral down into a mystery so encompassing, it feels as if Anderson’s sun-scorched LA was built on it. But although the picture pushes noir to new abstract heights, its main impetus actually lies in comedy; Anderson here proves himself a master of the visual gag, and through the baffled Phoenix and the terrific Josh Brolin – playing the cartoonish Detective ‘Bigfoot’, the foible to Doc’s unwitting trespasses – this may end up making you laugh more than most straight comedies this year.
And the rest of the cast leave a fantastic impression on this Anderson-Pynchon Rubik’s Cube of a movie; musician Joanna Newsom narrates the goings-on (without explaining an inch of the story), and Jena Malone strikes the right notes playing a wife who has lost her husband, Coy Harlingen, played by the innocent-eyed Owen Wilson, whose plight gives the movie something of an emotional core. However, not everyone is served well by Inherent Vice’s culture-spanning plot: both Reese Witherspoon and Javier Bardem are sidelined. Perhaps their own stories, only glimpsed at, are tiny pieces in a big puzzle – one which Doc is himself only a small part of.
And maybe that’s the point. As Inherent Vice burrows further down, maybe we’re not supposed to understand much of it – we’re just supposed to enjoy the ride. This is a film that will be watched over and over again by those drawn to uncovering a meaning hidden inside its intricate, intercrossing trails of motives – if there is a meaning to be found at all. And though you may feel frustrated during one, two or many viewings, you may also feel bizarrely elated; at least Joaquin Phoenix has shown us the face that goes with it.