MYSTERIES ARE TRICKY, particularly for those of us with shitty memories who're good with neither names nor faces. The best mysteries are the unpredictable ones—and the unpredictable ones rely on quick-switches and surprise reveals, buried details and long-forgotten connections. So when I tell you that Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice has all of those things, and also that it flickers onscreen through a thick blur of marijuana smoke—its characters' spaced-out conversations mumbled and whispered and shouted—it won't come as a surprise when I add that the movie makes hardly any goddamn sense. Maybe it does if you see it twice, or if you've read the Thomas Pynchon book it's based on, or if you—unlike me—possess enough foresight to sneak a joint into the theater. Or two, or three: Inherent Vice is two-and-a-half-hours long, and for some, that'll feel like a long time to be confused. For Inherent Vice's dubious hero, Doc Sportello, that feels like a long time to be sober.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, and Inherent Vice marks the point where I give up trying to describe how great Phoenix is. Here, in the more disreputable corners of 1970 Los Angeles, Phoenix is unrecognizable from his characters in Her and The Master and whatever else you can think of, slouching into a rumpled army jacket, a majestic pair of muttonchops, and, more often than not, a cheap can of beer or a smoldering joint. Doc tells people he's a private eye, and people seem to believe him—at least, they keep asking for his help in finding people, even when he seems like the one who's lost. It doesn't take long for a doozy of a client to wander into his life: Doc's ex, the beautiful and beautifully named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Shasta's got a weird story—a real estate mogul she's been sleeping with has disappeared—and pretty soon, more weirdness starts popping up, some of it involving neo-Nazis and some of it involving a cop named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) and some of it involving the Chick Planet massage parlor, which features a $14.95 pussy-eater's special. All of it takes place in a dusty, warm SoCal, where the orange sun flares into cinematographer Robert Elswit's lens and Neil Young floats over the soundtrack.
It's a supremely pleasurable experience, and a supremely discombobulating one—not unlike being stoned, actually, and with that sensation comes the desire to figure out what's going on. (That's only bolstered by faces that at first seem familiar and then, as they fade in and out of Doc's stumbling path, start to look strange: Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom.) But unlike some of the stories Inherent Vice initially seems reminiscent of (there's some Big Lebowski, some Rockford Files, and a lot of The Long Goodbye, which, probably not coincidentally, was directed by Anderson's friend and mentor, Robert Altman), Anderson's film doesn't give a shit if you don't understand what's going on—it's a movie both crammed full of plot and utterly unconcerned with it. Anderson's more intent on creating an altered state of mind, one that's as hazy as it is addictive.
So we follow Doc, our affable, constant companion, as he rambles along beaches and through loony bins—and we hope that Doc, as he rolls joints and rolls with more than a few punches, is, somehow, putting all these pieces together. As for whether you'll put it all together, hey, who knows. I saw Inherent Vice last night, and I still have a brain-scrambled hangover. I'm going again this weekend.