'Inherent Vice' a trippy beach noir set in '70s L.A.

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
Joaquin Phoenix and a terrific ensemble cast create a good buzz in a pot-infused, '70s-era LA beach noir

"Inherent Vice," Paul Thomas Anderson's trippy, trenchant satire, is very much a creature of Thomas Pynchon's biting deconstruction of the final daze of peace, love and understanding that gives the film its inspiration and its name.

Joaquin Phoenix and the terrific acting ensemble that joins him in this pot-infused '70s-era beach noir create such a good buzz you can almost get a contact high from watching. A sprawling cast is required for the many vices and various intrigues, with Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone and Martin Short as its core, plus Katherine Waterston, actor Sam's daughter, as the pivotal femme fatale.

After exploring cult mentality along the Eastern Seaboard in "The Master," "Inherent Vice" brings us back to Anderson's favorite locale: steamy Southern California's more unsavory sides. It would seem the writer/director intends to work through every layer. Starting with the San Fernando Valley's porn industry in "Boogie Nights" (1997), he moved on to love, lust and the seamier side of game shows, again in the Valley, with "Magnolia" (1999), before circling back to the region's early oil-boom days in "There Will Be Blood" (2007). Now he's one toke over the line and knee-deep in vice.

Trying to pare back Pynchon without killing the joke was the challenge. Anderson has done a remarkable job of replicating the crazy kaleidoscope of crime, dope and raunch the novelist conjured. It is a densely detailed cultural polyglot of real estate machinations, Aryan Brotherhood bikers, dental scams, sex, drugs, dope smoking, detectives and dames. Don't be fooled by the literary imprint; the intellectual underpinning is certainly there, but this is also a tawdry tale that earns its R rating.

Phoenix, who starred in "The Master," is once again Anderson's main co-conspirator. His Doc Sportello is a Birkenstock-wearing, weed-dispensing private investigator in a thinly masked '70s-era Manhattan Beach. Its surf culture, dive bars and weathered one-rooms by the month are still firmly entrenched, gentrification not yet an issue. The crafty crew — cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges — nail the period details. Nostalgia, like all other forms of sentiment, is never allowed to interfere.

The dame is Shasta Fey Hepworth (Waterston), a tall drink of water who happens to be Doc's ex, or one of them. These days she's the mistress of a local land-grabbing developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). It's not all that clear whether Shasta's dropped by Doc's place for help or confession. Regardless, he gets her tale of woe. She's been roped into a plot by Wolfmann's wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boy toy to have Wolfmann committed to a high-end insane asylum, leaving them free to split his money.

What — Shasta wonders — does she owe Mickey? Does — Doc wonders — she love the guy? The issue of loyalty and love colliding with self-interest shapes the film and all the players to varying degrees. Complexities and complications are everywhere. Lives and lies overlap, as do the various vices.

Though Wolfmann's land acquisition is key — bulldozing over the less fortunate to make way for suburban sprawl — the story is just as interested in the implications of the emerging heroin cartels and their ripple effect of bad karma, bad teeth and recovering addicts willing to pay for self-improvement plans.

The fate of one former addict, a tenor sax player (Wilson) who's infiltrated one branch of the mysterious Golden Fang Enterprises for the feds, is but one of many of the crime-riddled scenarios Doc stumbles into and decides to sort out.

Lt. Det. Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Brolin), however, is far more critical to Doc's health and well-being. Bigfoot's dreams of making the leap from LAPD to a TV deal has led to humiliating turns in cheap ads for Wolfmann's new housing project. The Wolfmann connection serves to put Doc directly in Bigfoot's sights and provide the entry point for one lovely deputy district attorney (Witherspoon), another of Doc's loves.

Indeed, the film relies as much on the entries and exits of new characters to entertain the audience and distract Doc as issues and ideas. Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) helps with the untangling. She's Doc's occasional assistant and serves as the film's sexy, free-spirited narrator, connecting some of the dots and providing some clarity.

Doc's dope smoking is significant to the movie's mood and its narrative structure, and, as it happens, Phoenix does stoned exceedingly well. He manages to keep Doc in a constant blur, always slightly off balance and one beat behind, caught beautifully in the shake of his head, the confusion in his eyes.

From the drugs to the dentists to the scheme Shasta's involved in, all roads lead back to Golden Fang. Though Doc's digging into Fang's business is played for laughs, what emerges is not just a portrait of a drug operation but also the kind of corporate hubris that was beginning to take shape in the 1970s, defined by global reach, questionable tactics and commercial imperatives.

For all of its darker themes, the movie never loses its wicked sense of humor. The mere idea of nefarious dentists is a hoot. Casting Short as the tooth trade's main piece of scum is inspired.

Indeed, "Inherent Vice" is Pynchon and Anderson at their funniest, loosest and most accessible. The cast seems to thoroughly enjoy being in on the joke. Maybe it's all the weed.


'Inherent Vice'

MPAA rating: R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence

Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark Theatres, West Los Angeles; AMC Century City.

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