Drenched in 1970s California sun and a haze of pot smoke we are introduced to Larry ˜Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) the private detective with huge sideburns who is the heart of the latest Paul Thomas Anderson film Inherent Vice. Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, it is a hard-boiled private detective genre given a contemporary spin by Anderson.
Showing all the snake oil salesman who populate Los Angeles, what we are presented with here is a melancholy comedy set at a time that the summer of love appears consigned to history and US is in a state best described as bummed out. Not Doc though, who ignores everyone’s greetings of ˜What’s up Doc’ and has his feet firmly planted in the dizzying high of the previous years of free love.
Like all great crime mysteries involving private dicks, Inherent Vice begins with a woman entering Doc’s office with a case. The female voiceover, whose dialogue is partly lifted from Pynchon’s novel narrates throughout giving insight into the characters and settings. This allows Doc to be more of a silent type. He switches from blissful ignorance to a sharp-minded investigator. Joaquin Phoenix tones down the performance for once and other than a moment where he reacts to a photo, his character is rich and compelling, revealing more and more layers along with each plot revelation. In his own way he’s honourable in his intentions and the perfect hero for a sleazy, sunny California mystery.
Populating the rest of this slice of sunny California are a selection of oddball characters who stay just on the right side of believable, each bringing elements of doubt into the increasingly psychedelic narrative. You’ve got archetypes like the vindictive, straight-laced cop (Josh Brolin) whose a constant thorn in Doc’s side but who sneakily brings pathos to what appears to be at the start a two-dimensional character.
Then there’s the aforementioned former flame Sashta, played with superb moral ambiguity by Katherine Waterston. We are introduced to them as Doc works his way around the City of Angels following each lead in an increasingly labyrinthine plot that threatens to become too smart for its own good. In fact by the end you’re not sure whether the twists and revelations all really add up to a coherent story, but the important thing is that there are no glaringly obvious errors or holes, and so it works in the vaguest way possible.
Pynchon and Anderson certainly prove to be a wonder team, allowing their strengths to enhance the other persons and with surgical precision subplots and unnecessary asides are removed from the book to give the film a healthy flow. It may clock in at the 2 and a half hour mark, but it never drags and constantly keeps you engaged as it peels away the glossy exterior of one of the most famous cities in the world.