At the end of my reserved review on Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work “The Master” (2012), I asked, “What will be the next step for him?” I could not get the answer at that time, but now I’ve got it from his next film “Inherent Vice”, a Californian film noir shrouded in marijuana haze. While it is equipped with unexpected plot turns and colorful stock characters like many other film noir works, the movie languidly floats around its loose detective story like marijuana smoke in the air, and it is alternatively frustrating and fascinating to watch its goofy detective hero passively rolling along with its baffling offbeat mood which somehow holds our attention even when we are not that sure about where the story is going – or where it is not going, perhaps.
It is 1970 in California, and local private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, who looks far more relaxed than his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Master” (2012)) is going through another drowsy afternoon of pot smoking at his place when his former girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) unexpectedly appears in front of him like many sexy ladies did in old hard-boiled detective fictions. She is currently in the relationship with a wealthy, influential real estate developer named Michael Z. “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and she is worried because it seems his wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) is scheming with her lover for snatching Wolfmann’s money.
Although he does not look very interested in taking the case, Doc accepts Shasta’s request as a favor, but then Wolfmann is suddenly disappeared not long after Doc took his first step into the case. Shasta is also disappeared with no trace, and it is clear to us that the case may be a lot more complicated than it seemed at first, though Doc’s fuzzy brain is probably more interested in another marijuana to smoke than solving the case (Did I tell you that he and other characters in the film smoke marijuana as frequently as classic film noir characters smoke cigarette?).
And his circumstance does become more baffling along with a couple of other strange cases to handle. First, he is visited by Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams, who is very good in his short scene), a local Black Power gang leader who wants to find a member of Aryan Brotherhood gang for settling some old business matter with him. That guy in question also happens to be associated with Wolfmann, and it is possible that he is involved with Wolfmann’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a young mother who is also a recovering heroin addict, asks Doc to find her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player who went missing while leaving considerable amount of money to her and their kid. While it does not take much time for Doc to find Coy, it turns out Coy is not what he seems to be on the surface, and that is another mystery to confuse us as well as Doc.
As slowly searching for more clues during his laid-back investigation, Doc comes across more troubles on his way, and it becomes plausible at least in his dopey view that his three different cases are interconnected with each other. At one point, he wakes up to find himself lying down right next to a dead man’s body after getting himself knocked on the head at a suspicious massage shop, and he accordingly draws the unwanted attention of Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a sullen cop who does not even try to hide his contempt on Doc’s casual hippie appearance. In addition, there are also a couple of FBI guys who have an interest on Doc’s case for some motive, and Doc has no choice but to deal with not only Bigfoot and these guys but also Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), who had a relationship with Doc in the past.
There are many other things in the story I have not described yet, and you will be more disoriented because of its maddeningly labyrinthine plot, but the director Paul Thomas Anderson, who also adapted Thomas Pynchon’s acclaimed novel for his film, constantly maintains the level of our interest as establishing the authentic period mood on the screen. Anderson’s usual cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar for their previous collaboration in “There Will Be Blood” (2007), does an excellent job of evoking the sunny and leisurely counterculture atmosphere of California during the 1970s, and the production design and costumes in the film are impeccable in colorful period details which look pretty amusing in our time.
Under Anderson’s relaxed but confident direction, we are served with many bizarre moments of offbeat humor while various broad characters come and go amidst hazy confusion, and Anderson assembled the impressive supporting cast revolving around Joaquin Pheonix’s easygoing comic performance. While Katherine Waterston imbues alluring quality into her character, Joanna Newsom, who plays Doc’s loyal assistant, adds another absurd touch to the film through her dry hard-boiled narration, and Martin Short is hilarious during his brief appearance as a loony dentist who does not mind show his inappropriate relationships in front of Doc. While Benicio del Toro has a small fun as Doc’s lawyer, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, and Eric Roberts are also solid in their small but distinctive roles, and Josh Brolin is terrific in his wry deadpan performance as a tough cop who is in a sort of complex love/hate relationship with Doc.
In the end, “Inherent Vice” arrives at its anticlimax finale with many loose ends left behind it while not making much sense, but such a narrative flaw like that usually does not matter much in the stylish world of film noir (Remember that elusive question of who killed a certain character in “The Big Sleep” (1946)?), and the movie is filled with ample amount of mood and style to admire. I must admit that I still have difficulties in connecting dots in its dizzy plot, but I also understood that it depends on mood and characters rather than plot, and I certainly enjoyed its mood, humor, and performance although I felt impatient at times with its slow pace. With its cheerfully offbeat spirit, it deserves to be mentioned with Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973) and the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” (1998), and I believe this weird creature will be remembered as another idiosyncratic entry in the singular career of a very interesting American director.