If “The Maltese Falcon” met “The Big Lebowski” met “Chinatown” met “The Long Goodbye” — well, first of all, that’s the beginning of a great film festival, and also you’d get “Inherent Vice.”
In a movie world where “Mark Wahlberg takes on giant talking robots” is a typical plot description, here we have the great stylist Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood”) turning a Thomas Pynchon novel into a 148-minute head trip starring Joaquin Phoenix as a barefoot hippie detective with Neil Young sideburns named Doc who gets embroiled in a tangled web involving a former girlfriend named Shasta, who wants to stop a plot to have her married lover committed to a mental institution, even as a square-jawed cop named Bigfoot is obsessed with bringing down Doc.
And that’s just the start of the madness.
If you have a friend who elbows you throughout movies and says things like, “Who’s that guy again?” and “Why does she want him dead?” don’t take that friend to this movie, because you will end up with fractured ribs by the end of the film. I was asking many of those questions to myself during this sometimes frustrating, sometimes hilarious and always entertaining hot mess of a film.
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Phoenix is perfectly cast as the perpetually befuddled Doc, a private detective of sorts who immerses himself in pot as he wryly observes his own misadventures almost as if they’re happening to someone else.
It’s Los Angeles, 1970. The bloom is off the peace-and-love psychedelic era. (The Manson trial is a running backdrop.) As is the case with so many film noirs — even film noirs bathed in the relentless sunshine of Southern California — it all begins with a visit from a femme fatale. Katherine Waterston is Doc’s ex, one Shasta Fay Hepworth, who’s all long legs and cut-off jean shorts and manipulative trouble. (It’s a brave performance from Ms. Waterston, including a scene in which she bares all and messes with Doc’s mind and his heart and everything else in a way seldom seen in a mainstream film.)
Doc is so stoned he’s not even sure Shasta’s really there in the room with him — but she is, and she needs his help. Shasta is currently involved with a mysterious and scary businessman named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, in a terrific extended cameo), and she needs Doc’s help in thwarting the plot by Mickey’s wife and the wife’s lover.
And off we go. Instead of telling Shasta to take a hike, Doc plunges right through the rabbit hole.
Michael K. Williams is a member of the Black Panthers trying to track down one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and that leads to Doc being framed for a murder. Owen Wilson is a musician who might be dead or could be underground. Reese Witherspoon is a deputy district attorney who has a thing for Doc. Benicio Del Toro is one of Doc’s few real friends in the world. Martin Short kills as a coked-up dentist who surrounds himself with a bevy of beautiful girls.
And then there’s Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, a ham-fisted copper who has bit parts on TV shows such as “Adam-12” and is always on the verge of exploding with rage — except when he’s at home, and he’s the henpecked husband to a constantly nagging wife. It’s a brilliant comedic performance from Brolin as a blockhead buffoon who knows the truth about himself and tries to cover it with a linebacker’s machismo.
You could watch “Inherent Vice” with a notebook, putting together one of those cop-movie flow charts starting with Doc’s name in a box at the top and all kinds of lines connecting the rest of the characters. Don’t do that. That would be crazy.
About halfway through the film, I stopped leaning forward and trying to puzzle it out in favor of letting the weirdness and the black comedy wash over me. I stopped worrying too much about the connections between characters named Sauncho Smilax, Adrian Prussia, Dr. Buddy Tubeside and Petunia Leeway and enjoyed the ride. Why shouldn’t we be as perplexed as Doc himself?
“Inherent Vice” isn’t one of Anderson’s best films, but even when he’s engaging in a self-indulgent lark of a prose poem about the curtain call for the hippie-dippie, psychedelic hippies, the result is more interesting and dazzling than the vast majority of mainstream fare.
In 1970, reviewers might have recommended you see this movie stoned. I’d say you’re better off seeing it without even a shadow of a hangover. It’s a trip all by itself.
Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon. Running time: 148 minutes. Rated R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.