Inherent Vice isn’t really exactly the way you think a movie with a doper as its main character should be. Doc Sportello has a hard time about who knows what about which crime, and which suspect, and when and why and all of that. But neither can the audience. I think I lost the plot half an hour into the movie, and I think the same thing would happen to me if I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel it is based on. Inherent Vice might be about a P.I., but he is used as a character, not as a conduit for a whodunnit. Joaquin Phoenix plays him wonderfully. The notes he takes are the movie’s highlight.
What drives Doc to investigate is that the case is brought to him by the lost love of his life, a beauty named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a name that is repeated throughout the movie like a mantra. I am not entirely sure if she is really there some of the time. Other characters keep drifting in and out of focus. On the other hand, a character like Bigfoot Bjornsen, a hippie-hating crewcut copper, played by Josh Brolin, stakes his claim like a reality check. Just listen to him when he orders his pancakes at the diner. In a sense, Sportello and Bigfoot need each other: Bigfoot can heap his vitriol on hippie scum like Doc, and Doc has an excellent target for his bemused, woolly sarcasm.
The movie doesn’t use one single scene to put us in Doc’s state of mind: no lens flare, no colorful caleidoscopic nonsense, no floating choruses. If you think something is not quite real, then it might not be, but then again, it’s hard to tell. There are no clear indications about where we are – we’re in California, sure, and it’s 1970 or so, but it’s like reality and Doc’s plane of existence run on parallel lines, side by side. The Summer of Love is already two years in the past, and Altamont has put a dent in West Coast hippie lifestyle. You can feel that Doc is no longer entirely carefree. Something, somewhere, is past its high point.
Inherent Vice has a truckload of supporting roles and cameos: Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts, Martin Short, Michael K. Williams, Maya Rudolph, Martin Donovan, Serena Scott Thomas, Michelle Sinclair, Owen Wilson. And many more, but I can’t remember them all. Some might complain that the movie is too long, and they might be right – but why would you want to kill such a nice buzz? A doobie takes as long as a doobie takes.