If nothing else, "Inherent Vice" demonstrates how far the private eye movie, a classic American form, has traveled since the days of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. In the new film, the tough detective in search of a hidden truth -- played most memorably by Humphrey Bogart and some worthy successors like Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner -- is now a stoned hippie played by a hirsute, unkempt Joaquin Phoenix. And that's not a good thing.
Set in Los Angeles -- where else? -- in 1970, and based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, the movie proceeds in a sort of parody of the traditional genre, with the added mixture of laborious weirdness that characterizes Pynchon's work. Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, an investigator that nobody in their right mind would hire for anything, who embarks on a series of oddball adventures on behalf of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She turns up at his dump of an apartment asking for his help in finding her married lover, a real estate magnate named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Wolfmann, one of Sportello's sources informs him, hangs around with the Aryan Brotherhood; she calls him a Jew who wants to be a Nazi.
In the traditional manner, the case grows increasingly complicated, leading Sportello to search not only for Wolfmann, but also for Shasta, who has disappeared. Along the way he becomes involved in looking for an ex-junkie police informant and rock musician, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), whose story illogically and mostly irrelevantly concludes this very long movie. Sportello also endures frequent encounters with his nemesis (also in a way his colleague), an LAPD detective lieutenant named Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who routinely arrests him, interrogates him, accuses him of a couple of crimes, and now and then stomps him into jelly.
As the narrative lurches along incoherently, accompanied by an annoying voiceover that tells us what Doc and other characters are thinking, and patches some of the holes in the plot, Sportello discovers, through information from an Asian prostitute, an entity called the Gold Fang is at the center of the several mysteries. Gold Fang is alternately an Indo-Chinese heroin smuggling cartel, a sailing ship, a consortium of dentists evading income taxes, or some kind of upscale neo-Buddhist commune.
Again in the usual manner, Doc travels through layers of Los Angeles society, from ex-convicts and drug dealers to the palatial mansions of the rich and privileged, where he usually ends up even more confused than when he began his strange quest. He makes the journey easier, however, with a constant intake of marijuana, assisted by acid, cocaine, and nitrous oxide. The incessant doping qualifies "Inherent Vice" as the most thoroughly drug-soaked movie since "Easy Rider."
Typically Pynchonesque, the picture overflows with bizarre characters, often with equally bizarre names -- Sauncho Smilax, Adrian Prussia, Japonica Fenway -- recalling some of his past creations, like Oedipa Maas and Benny Profane. The collection of weirdoes and wackos includes a drug-crazed dentist, Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), who apparently commits the unforgivable crime of seducing Japonica while playing Broadway show tunes in hotel rooms with bad wallpaper (her father makes the accusation).
Not surprisingly, the performers work with an appropriate exaggeration, either as cartoon characters or as exaggerated stereotypes. As the surprisingly tormented "Bigfoot," James Brolin dominates most of his scenes, funny without in the least attempting humor. All the close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix's unlovely face, framed in horrible mutton chop whiskers and topped by a messy nest of hair, grow very tiresome very quickly, but his constant confusion and low-level affect make him a most convincing pothead.
"Inherent Vice" may satisfy fans of Thomas Pynchon's works -- I gave up on him after the ponderous "Gravity's Rainbow" -- as well as the number of critics who place him high on the list of contemporary novelists. It reflects some of his cleverness, his density, and his habit of occupying the invulnerable position of self-parody. The director, Paul Thomas Anderson, captures that quality of self-parody in the film, protecting himself and the work through an insistent sense of the absurd.