This is a confusing film. That needs to be said at the outset, because any expectation of a conventional crime / police drama, where threads are teased out but eventually all tied up, is likely to be disappointed early on. This is not a simple, single investigation story; ‘Doc’ Sportello, played exquisitely by Joaquin Pheonix, is meant to be investigating three cases, and it feels like a lot more. Perhaps the only unsurprising thing is that these three stories – involving ex-girlfriends, ex-junkies, property developers, saxophone players, neo-Nazis and a spiritual guide who wears speedos – are somehow interconnected. Aside from that, drop any expectations of coherence. Characters’ names and faces crop up at random junctures, in the unlikeliest of locations (everything from ‘Chick Planet’ massage parlour to a drug-snorting-dentist’s office) and as one mystery seems to unfold, another is revealed underneath. Most of Inherent Vice resembles a hazy smokescreen or psychedelic trip, laced with paranoia.
Which is appropriate, given the setting in 1970. The swinging sixties are only hanging on in select squat-like apartments, much like Sportello, as new business begins to push out the hippies and their longhaired, stoner lifestyles. Doc is posed as a dying breed, his bare, dirty feet and sideburns at odds with the suited and booted professionals around him. Pheonix is pitted against Josh Brolin, in the severely flat-topped guise of Detective Christian Bjornsen, aka Bigfoot. This odd-couple pairing is where much of the humour of the film comes from, with Doc’s arch, mostly silent responses to Bigfoot perfectly timed to be just slightly too long. Brolin shines, whether barking food orders in loud, yet disarmingly accurate Japanese, or kicking down doors, “after a long day of civil rights abuses”.
The tone, like the plot, is never regular. At times Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction resembles that of his namesake Wes Anderson, in its offbeat and highly stylised kookiness; at other times it is closer to a film noir. Some scenes are almost pantomime-like; others are difficult, tense and emotional. A sex scene that begins as flirtatious and goofy becomes increasingly twisted, revealing a complex blend of pain, aggression and guilt. This unreliable movement echoes throughout the film; it is impossible to pin down or predict and it seems to make sense and make a muddle of itself simultaneously. The result is a confused jumble, but also quite possibly a triumph.