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‘Inherent Vice’ review: Joaquin Phoenix is a stoned hippie with huge muttonchops

They always said Thomas Pynchon’s novels couldn’t be made into movies. Maybe they were right.

(Joaquin Phoenix in “Inherent Vice.”)

Wait … who’s “they” and what do “they” know? Is that a trick question? Did someone tell “them” to ask that? Or is it, as a cop says to a stoner detective in “Inherent Vice,” just more “paranoid hippie (bad word).”

Reading “Inherent Vice,” Pynchon’s 2009 homage to the detective novel, is like taking a large, shaggy dog on a walk to 7-Eleven. It’s lots of fun at first, but you’re tired and hungry by the time you get there and nothing is very fulfilling. It’s brilliant but it puts you on edge, like someone is watching you mix flavors on that Big Gulp and maybe stealing your dog while you’re in the store. (Did someone take off with Buster? Maybe it’s “them.”)

What it doesn’t make you do, unless you’re Paul Thomas Anderson, is say “this would make a great movie.” Anderson is a lifelong admirer of Pynchon and shares with the reclusive writer a love of the edges of Southern California culture and a sense that unseen forces are always putting the screws to the righteous oddballs among us. Once Anderson made the prudent decision that Pynchon’s “Vineland” and “Mason & Dixon” are unadaptable (don’t even think about “Gravity’s Rainbow”), he did a cannonball into “Inherent Vice,” stuffing dozens of Pynchon’s flamboyantly named characters into a 148-minute movie that stumbles along at a languid pace and assumes the audience is hanging at the same chill temperature. (Those brownies haven’t kicked in yet? Bummer. You don’t think ….)

The names — Bigfoot Bjornsen and Coy Harlingen and Sancho Smilax and Petunia Leeway and Ensenada Slim and Dr. Buddy Tubeside and Burke Stodger and Puck Beaverton and (my favorite) Japonica Fenway — are as colorful as the set-up is private-eye conventional: a gorgeous dame walks in and sends a reluctant hero down the rabbit hole. This time it’s 1970 in Gordita Beach, Calif., a seedy beach town in Southern California. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a detective with Neil Young’s muttonchops and Willie Nelson’s appetite for marijuana, is kicking back in his natural habitat, the couch in his apartment, when his old flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), oozes in from the past and says she’s in trouble. She’s paranoid, he’s paranoid — everyone’s a little paranoid — and it’s clear he’s carrying a torch for her that’s bigger than the joint that’s always in his hand. He agrees to take the case, although even at this early point it’s not clear what the case is and what he can do about it. (You don’t mean ….)

Before Doc knows what hit him on the back of the head, he’s trying to unravel a conspiracy involving a crooked real estate developer, a Nazi motorcycle gang, a mysterious organization called the Golden Fang that might be heroin smugglers and might be a tax dodge for dentists (or might be both), a government informant who can’t get out, a sanitarium that could be keeping its patients hooked on drugs, and a bunch of crooked cops that don’t like the Sixties one bit and beat on Doc at every opportunity because to them he is the Sixties, confused, barefoot, and free.

There’s a loose sense of fun that floats across the surface of “Inherent Vice” but the shadows are always there. Joaquin Phoenix resists the urge to take the easy way out and plays Doc not as Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo” but as a sadder, scruffier Philip Marlowe from Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” the movie Anderson uses as a touchstone. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit shoot Phoenix tight and often from below and let the great actor use his eyes and those frosted muttonchops register sorrow and fear. In classic gumshoe tradition, Doc isn’t really working for a client but trying to restore what he sees as some small piece of justice to a corrupted world. He doesn’t want money, much to the surprise of one of the men who pull the strings, he just wants to make one little thing right.

As Doc lurches from one slice of Los Angeles to another, he’s helped or hindered by an amazing cast of characters and some of Anderson’s wittiest lines (a few lifted straight from Pynchon’s novel). Josh Brolin, as conflicted cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, has a square-jawed, flat-topped energy that mixes with Phoenix’s hairy haze like smoke over water. Reese Witherspoon continues her mid-career recovery with a prim turn as Doc’s sometimes-girlfriend, and Martin Short (as a groovy dentist), Jena Malone, Hong Chau, Joanna Newsom, Benecio del Toro and Michael K. Williams are vivid and fully alive. Anderson’s been getting great work out of ensemble casts since “Boogie Nights” and clearly knows how to make magic out of small moments.

The problem with “Inherent Vice,” and what keeps it a step below “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” and Anderson’s best movies, is that all the Pynchon threads and dead ends come apart in the middle and aren’t really pulled back together. It’s easy to dismiss this as an extended series of goofs with no payoff, and not entirely wrong. I’ve read the novel and seen the movie twice, and I’ve given up worrying about the plot. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what Pynchon is trying to say, that the Sixties were a sneaker wave that rolled up the beach and was receding fast by 1970, and that a rich man who wanted to give away his money was considered crazy and locked away.

What matters most to Doc, and to Anderson, is love. The scene that lingers from “Inherent Vice” isn’t Bigfoot breaking down a door or Puck Beaverton unrolling a tie but Doc and Shasta Fay consulting an Ouija Board on where to find free pot and running around L.A. in the rain while Young’s “Journey Through the Past” plays. “Will your restless heart come back to mine on a journey through the past?” It’s what Doc really wants to know, when day is done.

“Inherent Vice”

Grade: B-plus

Rating: R

Running time: 148 minutes

Playing at: Opens Jan. 9 at area theaters

Cast and crew: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Benecio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Joanna Newsom, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Hong Chau, Serena Scott Thomas, Michael K. Williams, Martin Short; written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

The lowdown: A long, rambling trip through Southern California in 1970, in search of … no one’s sure, exactly. Love? Lost innocence? Or just more reefer?







[via The Oregon]

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