Wide-eyed and whacked out on the funny weed, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mind-fried private eye from sunny Southern California trying to make sense of a series of incidents involving, in no particular order: a spacey former girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), a missing real estate mogul (Eric Roberts), a deceased saxophonist who apparently is not, in fact, deceased (Owen Wilson), a coke-snorting dentist with a libido in overdrive (Martin Short), a porno parlor proprietress (Hong Chau), a bullying cop with hair cropped in a fearsome flattop (Josh Brolin), a cultlike rehab center, risque neckties, a big fat heroin stash, a mysterious sailboat and a torture chamber.
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Toking and smoking up a storm, Doc is dazed and confused all the live-long day in “Inherent Vice,” and I can’t help but think that being high oneself on the now legalized happy herb would help a viewer to “get” what director Paul Thomas Anderson is trying to accomplish in his adaptation of what is arguably Thomas Pynchon’s most accessible novel.
Set in 1970, “Inherent” purports to be about the death throes of the hippie-trippy ’60s — characters are constantly deriding Doc as a “hippie dope fiend,” or some variation thereof — with the peace-love-and-pot ethos associated with the era giving way to a “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” corporate mentality. Paranoia — fear of cops, fear of the feds, fear of secretive behind-the scenes master manipulators — is in the mix too.
The picture is all over the map. Nothing coheres. Incidents, most faithfully derived by Anderson from Pynchon’s novel, occur at seeming random, and the movie meanders. A stoned viewer might not mind so much and conceivably could just drift along, accepting the aimlessness with a “the trip’s the trip” mindset.
There are some interesting performances in the picture — notably by Benicio Del Toro, playing Doc’s unflappable lawyer, and Reese Witherspoon, playing a tightly wound deputy DA who is Doc’s sometime lover — but those performances are presented in fragments and build to nothing.
Pynchon’s works have long been deemed unfilmable because his prose is complex, his plots maddeningly multilayered, his pacing roundabout, and his characters unfailingly peculiar. He’s a pleasure and a challenge to read, but the books don’t lend themselves to cinematic treatment. Anderson’s picture proves that. A big fan of Pynchon’s work, Anderson gives us the surface details but misses the unique essence.