The scent of elegy is as strong as the odor of burning pot in Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel about Southern California doper private eye Doc Sportello and the end of the 1960s.
The film opens in 1970, and neither the decade nor Doc's newly reappeared old girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, are what they used to be. Shasta hips Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) to the case of eccentric vanished real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann, launching Doc's journey into a sun-lit noir caper, complete with nasty cops, neo-Nazis, brutal drug gangs, reflexive hippie paranoia and a sleazy, velour-suited, um, dentist.
The first novel by postmodernist literary icon Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow) to reach the big screen is, unavoidably, a comedy. But mostly, Inherent Vice is a bittersweetly satiric rumination on how a counterculture premised on free love and better drugs unraveled (or perhaps was merely rewoven) into the old grim American venalities of money and power.
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Don't expect the more obvious emotional intensity of Anderson's two most recent films, There Will Be Blood and 2012's The Master. As rendered in Anderson's adapted screenplay, Inherent Vice shares more with The Big Lebowski than with either of those two darkly sonorous works. Yet even at two-and-a-half hours, Inherent Vice is less plot-driven, more discursive and also more lyrical than the Coens' stoner noir about what people like Doc — admittedly, a P.I. who works out of a gynecologist's office and huffs nitrous oxide — have lost.
So dig Pynchon's splendid character names (Pup Beaverton, Japonica Fenway) and strong character turns by Benicio Del Toro (as Doc's hapless lawyer), Reese Witherspoon (as Doc's unlikely assistant-D.A. girlfriend), Owen Wilson, Martin Short and more. Enjoy Anderson's rich cinematic style, highlighting Phoenix's darting hazel eyes and Josh Brolin's squinting menace as bruising, flat-topped cop and wannabe TV star Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. But remember: There's always a reactionary citizens' group when you don't need one; that dead sax player might actually be an undercover snitch posing as a radical activist; and just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.