With each passing movie, Paul Thomas Anderson wanders further and further away from the terrain mapped out by his filmmaking peers. He hasn't gotten lost yet: Inherent Vice may not be as undeniably astounding as his last three efforts, but that doesn't make it any less startling or wonderfully distinctive. If you're a fan of the guy, you've been excited for this Thomas Pynchon adaptation ever since it was first announced years ago. The happy news is that, despite being a little rambling and unfocused, Anderson's film is really something. Even when it falters, you're just so damn happy it exists at all.

The movie takes place in 1970 in Gordita Beach, a made-up Southern California community that's patented after Manhattan Beach or any of the other South Bay towns up against the Pacific Ocean where everybody seems to be running at half-speed, what with the general laid-back atmosphere and all the weed. Inherent Vice's hero is Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a mumbly private investigator who's apparently quite competent, although you wouldn't know it from his beach-bum attire and stoned passivity. (He might be even more blasé and peculiar than The Long Goodbye's Elliott Gould or The Big Lebowski's Jeff Bridges.)

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The crime Doc finds himself investigating is so diffuse that it never really pushes the story forward. I haven't read Pynchon's 2009 novel, so I confess that my first viewing of Inherent Vice left me in as much of a fog as the one in Doc's head when it came to the particulars. A second viewing cleared up who's doing what to whom and why, but in the final analysis, the whodunit itself really doesn't matter. Roger Ebert's old edict about how to evaluate a film is particularly apt here: It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it.

Anderson is a master when it comes to the how. Everything he made up to and including 1999's Magnolia was impressive enough, but you could see the obvious influences on his style, from his hero Robert Altman on that film to Scorsese and Coppola in Boogie Nights. Since then, though, he's forged his own path, creating films that are genuinely strange. Punch-Drunk Love remains one of the tensest romantic-comedies ever made, and its dangerously oddball character and idiosyncratic score (which seemed to reflect its protagonist's mental state) segued nicely into There Will Be Blood, a stripped-down monument to primal, conflicting American interests like capitalism, entrepreneurship, family, and God. That movie's powerfully totemic symbolism paved the way for The Master, which was just as suggestive of myriad big themes while cunningly refusing to be about any one concrete thing. (To watch The Master assuming it's "about" Scientology is to miss out on one hell of an emotional and visual experience.)

Now with Inherent Vice, Anderson has again made a film with Phoenix, although Doc is miles away from the sad, violent weirdo that anchored The Master. But the two films are linked by their bleached-out, slightly surreal, otherworldly tone. We recognize aspects of Gordita Beach and its neighboring cities, but the inhabitants' customs, the way they speak and behave, is like a foreign language. We don't always understand it, but Anderson does, and he submerges us into this environment so completely that both times I've watched the movie, I've come out of it feeling slightly stoned myself, transported. There is a mystery at the film's core, but the real fun here comes in figuring out the people Doc comes across, to say nothing of this early-'70s atmosphere in which the free-love optimism of the '60s is calcifying into paranoia, addiction and cynicism.

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In terms of explaining the plot, let's just say that Doc is looking into a possible scheme hatched by the new boyfriend of his much missed ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She's having an affair with a powerful, well-connected land developer named Michael Z. Wolfmann, and after Doc is framed for the murder of one of Wolfmann's bodyguards, our hero runs afoul of his old sparring partner Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an LAPD detective and occasional actor who will happily tell you all the nice things the Los Angeles Times has said about him. That's the way a lot of Inherent Vice is: Every character is a real character, although to Anderson's credit, he doesn't overload the movie with too many self-indulgent eccentrics. (Martin Short, playing a sauntering, promiscuous cokehead dentist, is probably the closest the film comes to outright camp.) Doc isn't just trying to get to the bottom of what's going on—he's trying to negotiate different social strata of L.A., including the very rich, the very lost, the hippies, the New-Age types, and the other assorted freaks.

Some sequences work better than others, but eventually it becomes apparent that, like with The Master, Anderson is crafting a sense of a larger community, making his own personal time capsule of a bygone era. Inherent Vice can be slapstick-y and juvenile—oral-sex jokes pop up from time to time—and its overall tone is that of a groovy, hangout lark. But there's a real sense of loss underneath it all. Doc wants to crack the case, but he really just wants to get Shasta back, no matter the plentiful hookups available to him. (Great in a small part is Reese Witherspoon as his current girlfriend, a straight-laced junior district attorney who seems to view him as her fun dalliance with a bad boy.)

From Punch-Drunk Love on, Anderson's films have been flecked with melancholy, the characters fumbling toward something ineffable but realizing they'll never get it. Inherent Vice is his funniest work in a while, but what's odd is that, when you think about the movie afterward, it doesn't seem that humorous. As Doc, Phoenix is a small marvel of inarticulate, smart-ass sadness. Pining for the gal who's moved on, trying to find a place in a world that's changing, he drifts through Inherent Vice solving a mystery for no other reason than he's got nothing else to do. With its lackadaisical pace, off-kilter sense of humor and sprawling cast of characters—I haven't even mentioned Owen Wilson, terrific as a local musician with secrets—this thing is going to test some people's patience. (You'd better be okay with constant references to astrology, too.) But it's yet another original creation from one of our great filmmakers. So, yes, it's not quite a magnificent as There Will Be Blood or The Master. But that just means you'll only want to rewatch it several times, as opposed to dozens.

Grade: A-


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