Only a crazy director like Paul Thomas Anderson could think of a crazy movie like Inherent Vice, a nostalgic tribute at the dawn of 2014 to the golden age of hippie culture in late 1960s Los Angeles.
One of those hippies is private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello, who reunites with former lover Shasta after a long time, but not for a sweet reunion of romance.
Indeed, the woman asks him for help in finding her current lover, Michael Z. Wolfmann, a wealthy construction tycoon who now seems repentant after a long life of taking advantage of poor people, wanting to build unrestricted condos for everyone.
Of course, his partners and wife disapprove of his change of heart, so they try to portray him as insane and erase him from the company’s public face.
Partly aided and partly hindered by Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Doc discovers that Wolfmann has officially disappeared while, at the same time, another woman asks for his help, Hope Harlingen, who is looking for her missing husband, Coy.
As if enough people hadn’t disappeared already, his beloved Shasta also vanishes into thin air, while Doc finds more and more clues that the mysterious and powerful Golden Fang, a dangerous and vast drug-dealing organization between Asia and the United States, is behind these crimes.
Moreover, all the missing persons’ trail leads to the wealthy Chryskylodon Institution, a sanitarium run by a Golden Fang-related cult under the control of Adrian Prussia, an old hitman who in the past has even worked occasionally for the police.
As the plot thickens around him, entangling clues and witnesses in an unbreakable web of power, sex, and drugs, poor Doc laboriously navigates the search for truth amidst attractive women and cocaine-dependent doctors.
A vivid, funny portrayal of the 70s
Paul Thomas Anderson digs into a plot that moves from noir to classic detective story, from comedy to bawdy eroticism, with a pleasant, ever-present, irreverent humor.
Without bothering to slavishly follow Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, he orchestrates a complex score of human relationships between people who hate and love each other relentlessly.
The final representation is an endless universe of past Los Angeles within the many narrative, psychological, and introspective contexts of a plethora of characters, all desperately and strangely searching for something missing in their lives.
Anderson extrapolates an even more impenetrable plot from the book in its intricate web of mysteries and intrigues, turning it into an incomparable drama imbued with empathy and an irrepressible love for the outsiders of an unforgiving America, co-writing the screenplay with the same Pynchon.
The film presents a complex story of affluent people and sexy, naïve girls adrift in a colorful hippie culture that seeks refuge in drugs and swift, stormy love affairs while also exploring the dysfunctional elements of society in the late 1960s, such as corruption, lust for wealth, and the constant sense of an era coming to an end.
Despite its anti-Hollywood sophistication, following this plot is an effortless pleasure that does not give you a headache from the millions of clues or conspiracy theories.
My advice is to enjoy the collective madness of this 2014 movie without looking for precision in the details but to experience it as if you were the protagonist and not the extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix: following the inherent vice flow of nature, living mindlessly on the beach in sandals and open shirts, with shoulder-length hair and thick sideburns on your cheeks.
Hippie love and power conspiracy
Joaquin Phoenix, a perpetually (or nearly so) exaggerated and sublimely masked freak, is a splendid portrayal that comes close to parodying the “hippie” type along with Katherine Waterston, a partner as gorgeous and elusive, wild and sensual as 1970s Los Angeles.
A couple that should be great but is not; although both seem lulled by dreamy romance and spirituality, we understand their love cannot last.
Both reject the habits and virtues of the upper crust, embodied to perfection by the excellent Josh Brolin.
The perennial contrast between Phoenix and Brolin is the real driving force behind the film, which is set amid a fragile period in history that is slowly fading into something else while our digital and connected age is still far on the horizon.
But don’t think the supporting cast is any less important because, for example, we have names like Reese Witherspoon and Benicio del Toro, one Doc’s lover, and the other his lawyer, who help him deal with the low blows from the cops.
I also cannot leave out Martin Short, an exaggerated coke-addicted dentist who constantly gets his rocks off behind his practice’s secretaries and young clientele.
Eric Roberts’ cameo as Wolfmann, a repentant billionaire who believes he has found himself, is even shorter and more philosophical for a character who is the real subject of the investigation along with Owen Wilson.
I must confess that Wilson did not convince me, not because of the actor, but because his character was treated a little too quickly, particularly considering his importance in the finale.
But these are tiny flaws, considering the vastness of a work like Inherent Vice, which brings in 2014 master Paul Thomas Anderson to make his movie more pace and fun.