After “Gone Girl,” this would be the second picture of 2014 that requires a second viewing to fully or not fully appreciate it. California noir, the most specific of sub-genres, is a psychedelic haze of babes, beaches, and private eyes stalking those beaches, worrying about those babes, and otherwise enjoying plenty of blunts, all in pursuit of an existential dead end where the mystery of the month may or may not be unsolved and the point at hand concerns any number of hippie virtues. Or none at all. That aptly describes genius Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” Only here there’s a little bit more, thanks to Thomas Pynchon, writer of the novel. As incoherent as the plot can be, and as undefinable as the film’s intentions sometimes are, Pynchon’s work and Anderson’s adapted script infuse the entire absurdist shindig with a wistful melancholy. That counts for something when it’s the end of an era, in this case the end of the counter-culture movement, otherwise known as 1970.
Among the slapstick humor, sexual energy, and convoluted shenanigans flowing through this film is a longing for something that’s gone or missing. Joaquin Phoenix’s pot-smoking dick Doc Sportello misses his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the pretty girl he shouldn’t be with but can’t stop thinking about, and the woman whose problems set the winding course for what’s to come. Shasta misses both Doc and her new lover Mickey Wolfmann, a wealthy real estate developer who’s disappeared at the probable hands of his real housewife of L.A., thus prompting the impromptu visit to her ex-old man. Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a reformed heroin addict with a daughter, misses her presumed dead husband who she’s certain ain’t dead. Said alive husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), now an undercover snitch for various anti-subversive groups, misses his family and wants out of his new life. Deputy D.A. and Doc’s side-squeeze Penny (Reese Witherspoon) misses a world where she can openly love this dirty, exciting frolicker of a human being without feeling shamed for it. Then there’s Sportello’s part-partner, part-adversary B.J. Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a sort-of corrupt cop who wants to be an actor but can’t hack it and can’t muster more than a scowl because he misses his old partner that his own department had offed. Despite his hippie-ness, Sportello will have to suffice as an inadequate replacement, even if they do drive each other crazy. And all of them, at least those who don’t use “hippie” as a six-letter word, they miss the sixties. They miss the peace signs and the free love and the feeling that everything was going to change for good and for better. But now it’s the seventies, and friendships have dissolved, the movements are being hunted down or co-opted, and drug users have become drug addicts. At the same time, even such humble notions are perhaps a little too heady for a film that’s not at all trying to be about something. Confused yet? This is a spiraling detective trip with more in common with “Alice in Wonderland” than, say, the imitable “Chinatown.” Phoenix, in a performance so farcically sublime it’s barely noticeable how good he is, stumbles through the story much like the audience does, moving from place to place receiving too much information and too many names for one person to handle at one time.
Various characters enter and exit Sportello’s foggy adventure, including Benicio Del Toro as his not always helpful lawyer with some tidbits on yet another tangent: the FBI want white Wolfmann to rain on the mafia’s real estate parade in Vegas, and are actually encouraging his cultish exile. Or Martin Short as a coked-up dentist at the center of a criminal operation somehow connected to Shasta, Coy, Mickey, and the rest, a scene that comes closest to fulfilling every P.T. Anderson fan’s anticipation for a set piece they can bathe in. It’s somewhat disappointing that a sequence with crescendo doesn’t truly exist here, but whispered dialogue will do instead. Anderson’s extensive use of dollies that invite the viewer into these private conversations of hush-hush and wink-wink is marvelous, turning a film that might be boring into something you want to lean into. Nevertheless, two and a half hours of talk that leads to minor fulfillment also leads to twiddling thumbs. In the end, in the spirit of California noir, while the ride is groovy and often funny, punctuated by a finger on the pulse of that period, there’s just not enough to grab onto, hang your hat on, sink your teeth into, whatever the jive. “Inherent Vice” is a film to be experienced, if not necessarily appreciated. But hey, man, that could change, right? That could change.