If you didn’t know that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, “Inherent Vice,” was derived from the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, an author equally beloved and feared for the sprawl of his sagas, you could imagine its pitch meeting as Philip Marlowe meets the Big Lebowski, transported to early ’70s stoner Los Angeles.
At its center, we have Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a shaggy P.I. whose quality hours are spent wearing denim and getting baked on his near-beach shack and whose nickname may derive from his maintaining a vague respectability by locating his actual office in a medical suite. Spiraling around Doc, in a series of personal crises interlocking with paid and obliged investigations, are crimes and intrigues that variously connect a real estate mogul, his wife, his lover (and Doc’s ex), counterculture informants, Nazi bikers, prostitutes, skull-conking LAPD, nose-picking feds, drug smugglers, financiers, runaways, loony dentists, sanitarium white coats and maybe a cult or two, kinda hard to say.
Sausage-packed into 90 minutes, this could be a farcical nightmare; left to breathe over a full extra hour, though, Anderson’s adaptation can run as intricate, straight-faced L.A. noir. The humor — of which there is much — is allowed to arrive in its own time, often as unexpected punctuation to a scene, always as a pervasive weirdness. That ex of Doc’s, Shasta (Katherine Waterson), comes to explain she might be an accessory soon to the disappearance of her mogul boyfriend. Doc then takes a case from an ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams, or Omar of “The Wire”) that points him toward the Aryan Brotherhood bodyguards of the same. Another case, proffered by the wife of a missing musician (Owen Wilson) points Doc deeper into some unseemly dealings. None of this is made easier with a gruff, self-described Renaissance cop nicknamed Bigfoot (a flat-topped Josh Brolin) alternately browbeating Doc and shaking him down for tips.
A novel of such ambitious interweaving gives the reader the option to return to a dense paragraph or a pivotal chapter. A film on first viewing will make no such concessions if your attention flags momentarily. For all the deftness of Anderson’s screenplay, the names will likely soup and the events will smudge sometime before Hour Three. It is that dense, in fact, without the sort of gentle trippy breathers that the Coen Brothers used to leaven “Lebowski.” This is the difference, perhaps, between a stoner comedy and a stoner drama. The latter is far less forgiving of impaired short-term memory.
To that end, though, “Inherent Vice” can’t be reduced to its constituent cogs and springs. Jonny Greenwood’s dream-fog score, playing constantly, complements the atmosphere of the image quality, color-saturated and pocked with blemishes evoking a Vietnam-era newsreel. Anderson here may have achieved a masterwork of plotting, but with a safety net. He has herded so many rabbits into the meadow that you can choose to chase as many or as few as you like. Eventually one or more are bound to bounce against your leg regardless, and amid the eddies of pleasant chaos, that may gratify as much as having actually caught the thing.
How ultimately satisfying the escapade feels comes down in no small way to how we cotton to Doc. Phoenix has established himself as an actor who deals in no half-measures, consuming his roles and feeding himself to them in kind. We find him by turns in this epic weak and witty and determined and louche, tarred as a hippie, but afraid of nothing and low enough in profile to navigate almost anywhere.
The Los Angeles that Pynchon and Anderson build for us is a deeply corrupt and yet curiously hopeful swamp. Doc embodies enough of the titular vice that we trust him when he shows glimmers of rectitude. He sees enough that we cannot begrudge him the occasional toke. Only a madman would head sober into such a sordid future.