How do you know what you know you know? Does it even matter? These are the questions director Paul Thomas Anderson asks in Inherent Vice. It's a tale of lost love, convoluted conspiracy, and an elegy for the Age of Aquarius. It's a detective story, an ode to L.A., and a pot-head parable—of what, exactly, is up for debate. That Anderson doesn't seem to care much about causes or resolutions isn't the point. It's the journey that matters, and it makes for one of the year's best films.
Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) adapted Inherent Vice from the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. He's the first person to take Pynchon's material from the page to the screen, and he does so as literally and lovingly as possible. Pynchon is known for his sprawling narratives, pun-saturated dialogue, and massive casts of characters. The novel had all of those things, but it's also the most accessible book in Pynchon's oeuvre. In that regard, it makes sense Anderson chose Inherent Vice to tackle. (I'd like to see what Anderson could do with Gravity's Rainbow's story of Byron the light bulb, but that probably isn't in the cards.)
The plot, in so far as it can be summarized, follows Private Investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to uncover the connection between crooked real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and a mysterious criminal consortium known as the Golden Fang.
The movie opens with the voice of Sortilège, a mythic goddess-like character played by alt-harp chanteuse Joanna Newsom. (In one of Anderson's few creative licenses, he drastically expands her character from the book.) Her voice floats through the air like Santa Ana winds blowing across the Pacific, setting up what's equal parts film noir and new-age meditation. Though her previous acting credits include only an MGMT music video and a Portlandia guest spot, Newsom's presence is captivating and crucial to the film's success. Seeming to exist only in the magic hour, she's a California spirit to ease the souls of aging hippies, surf bums, and folks who have lost their way.
Things kick off as Doc's "ex-old lady," Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), walks through the door of his beachfront bungalow with a problem involving a new boyfriend. Philip Marlowe fans already know what time it is: Shasta's scared. She's in over her head. She needs help. Doc, you're my only hope. Her arrival is a springboard that sends Doc on a madcap adventure across Los Angeles. But Shasta's not the only person in trouble with Mickey Wolfmann. There's also Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), an ex-con that needs to get in touch with a jailhouse buddy who happens to be a white power biker on Wolfmann's payroll ("He's technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi."), and Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a heroin addict with shiny new "chompers" whose saxophonist ex may or may not have OD'd.
The plot mostly functions as a vehicle for Phoenix to ping-pong from one surreal set-piece to another. His smarter-than-you-think stoner hero is both our de-facto guide and the most consistent aspect of Anderson's film. (He keeps a notebook where he writes things like “paranoia alert" instead of case notes.) The movie plays almost like a Disneyland ride that slows down between its moving dioramas. The best of these set-pieces comes in the form of a confrontation with Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a yakked-out D.D.S. who looks like Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, if Wonka had a penchant for barely legal women as well as purple suits. Short is so much fun that it's a shame the sequence can't go on for longer, but there's way too much happening in here to linger. (Plus, nobody can stay in one place when they're on so much cocaine.)
Though Doc's adventures are full of red-herrings, one-off jokes, and blink-and-you-miss-it reveals, the revolving cast of characters keep you engaged even when the plot becomes too tangled to unravel. Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), for instance, has a hangdog charm that's impossible not to love; Jade (Hong Chau) is a sex worker with more on the menu than her "pussy eater's special." There's one scene in particular between Doc and Shasta that's darkly funny, incredibly sexy, and hopelessly sad all at once—and not just because Waterson plays it entirely in the nude.
Like many of Anderson's movies, Inherent Vice is also a story about men grappling for power and influence over one another. Like There Will Be Blood's Eli Sunday to Daniel Plainview and The Master's Lancaster Dodd to Freddie Quell, Doc, too, has a foil in the form of Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, played with stone-faced hilarity by Josh Brolin. The scenes in which Bigfoot and Doc square off, many involving frozen fruit of a phallic nature, are some of the movie's funniest. But like much of Inherent Vice, they also have a quiet sadness to them. Bigfoot is a jerk, but he's not evil. Doc is perma-stoned, but he's got a big heart. I'm still trying to make sense of their final confrontation, but I haven't stopped thinking about it days later.
Inherent Vice isn't Paul Thomas Anderson's most audacious film (that'd be Magnolia), and it's not his most important (There Will Be Blood), but it's almost certainly his funniest (Boogie Nights is really fucking funny, though). It's also tragic, beautiful, and unlike anything else in theaters. You could pick apart the influences, the Robert Altman references, the plot holes, and cinematographer Robert Elswit's hypperreal lensing. But maybe it's better just to let the whole thing wash over you, Neil Young's voice and Jonny Greenwood's strings doing the work.
Like The Big Sleep before it, this gumshoe saga has more than one end left loose, but even at two and a half hours, I wouldn't have wanted it to end a minute earlier. Like the best highs, coming down was too big of a bummer to consider.
Nathan Reese is a news editor at Complex. He tweets here.