Midway through “Inherent Vice,” private investigator Doc Sportello starts to compile a wall chart of relationships among the bizarre characters in the story. He soon gives up, as any of us would.
The way to enjoy this convoluted, crazy movie is to approach it as “The Big Sleep” meets “The Big Lebowski” or “Chinatown” seen under the influence of China White. Joaquin Phoenix walks through most of the picture as Doc in a perplexed but usually happy daze, and he should be your model.
Except for the 2002 “Prüfstand VII,” a German film that dramatized parts of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” no one before writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has tried to turn one of Thomas Pynchon’s novels into a feature. Anderson does a near-ideal job of connecting more than a dozen significant characters and almost as many minor ones, providing a through-line that gives the mystery some shape.
It’s not his fault we never care who kidnapped Jewish Aryan Brotherhood member Mickey Wolfmann, whether dentist Rudy Blatnoyd belongs to the Indonesian drug cartel Golden Fang, or even whether Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katharine Waterston) will come back to old flame Doc, who’s pulled into this labyrinthine plot because he thinks she’s in trouble. Anderson honors the strange and often strangely funny raw material Pynchon handed him.
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The movie takes place in “Gordita Beach” in 1970, an enclave that embodies everything odd about Southern California at that time. “They each located a different karmic thermal, watching each other glide away into different states,” says the narrator about Doc and Shasta. Yet the script can also have wicked humor: Police officer Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) has “the evil little twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violation.’ ”
The title refers to an inbuilt flaw that makes a product impossible to insure, because you can’t count on it working or staying intact. Anderson fires amused salvos at drugged hippies, black power groups, porn parlors, the notoriously corruptible LAPD, confused rock musicians, sanitariums for rich people with imagined illnesses and other targets. But the satire doesn’t dig deep or sting long, because he drifts off quickly to other targets. (And it’s hard to take characters seriously if they’re named Sauncho Smilax, Lily Hammer and Japonica Fenway.)
Cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar shooting Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” drenches scenes in sunshine, fog or neon that suggests a red-light district. Jonny Greenwood, now Anderson’s go-to composer, applies a score that’s half-peppy and half-stoned, with well-chosen pop songs providing accents.
Anderson smartly filled the movie with actors who achieve maximum effects in 10-minute appearances: Eric Roberts as mumbling Mickey, Reese Witherspoon as a tightly-wound assistant district attorney, Martin Short as the jittery dentist, Benicio Del Toro as an unhelpful attorney, Owen Wilson as a whispery guitarist on the run.
The sometimes inaudible Waterston doesn’t have the rudiments of a femme fatale, however few clothes she wears, though you can imagine lazy-minded Doc pursuing her at moments of low self-esteem. Brolin steals the picture, whether gruffly lamenting the lack of Hollywood cameos for photogenic policemen or enjoying a chocolate-covered banana in the most obscene way possible. I often had no idea what was going in the big cop’s square head, but I didn’t mind. You can’t, if you hope to enjoy “Inherent Vice.”