Distinct qualities of your average Southern California doper include dirty feet, rotten teeth and matted hair. Their sullied living conditions vary in size, ranging from the small bungalows in windswept Gordita Beach to the cavernous mansions in Topanga Canyon. When encountering said dopers, expect rampant drug use, astrologically inclined conversation and the occasional sexual rendezvous with strangers. Considering the threat these deviants pose to our honest and hardworking society, they must be stopped, by any means necessary.
The above paragraph could have been written by any number of conservative outfits operating subversively throughout Thomas Pynchon's sandy 1970s noir, Inherent Vice. Such institutions (the FBI, the LAPD, the Department of Justice, the Nixon administration and an anti-communist group called Vigilant California) seek to undermine all areas of American counterculture. Each plays a dastardly role in Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant film adaptation, an airy, rhythmic and raspy mystery comedy encased in a bubble of pot smoke. The film sides with spaced-out hippies and militant minorities who live (and occasionally die) on the fringes of society, some desperate to change the world, others hoping to bring their own lives back into alignment.
Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a disheveled and tenacious private investigator, represents the kind of dazed outlier who threatens everything capitalist America stands for. Anderson's dreamlike opening sequence finds Doc's ex-flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (a beguiling Katherine Waterson), dropping back into his life, spinning a serpentine yarn about a powerful real-estate mogul (Eric Roberts) and his conniving wife, who hopes to steal his fortune. It's the first breadcrumb in a long and meandering story of vipers and swindlers, musicians-turned-informants and cops-turned-actors, all of whom populate a vision of Los Angeles with one foot in the past and another in an uncertain future.
Inherent Vice follows Doc's ensuing investigation, a pitfall-laden cruise through the alleyways and side streets of a city being ripped open by seedy land deals and a corrupt police force. Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, blacklisted actors, governmental collusion and folk music all play roles in the dense narrative. Within this context, Anderson examines the clash between gonzo lifestyles and paranoid sensibilities. Plot, in the traditional sense, matters less than the feeling of details and how they add up within personal relationships mired in conflict.
Pynchon's cyclical prose meshes perfectly with Anderson's formidable camera movement and playful visual sensibilities. Occasional bits of slapstick comedy erupt, but Inherent Vice resonates most during its more tender moments. Each of the interlocking stories, whether it's Doc's pursuit of Shasta or one involving a melancholic saxophone player (Owen Wilson), follows unique characters "gliding away into different fates," as expressed by Joanna Newsom's raspy narration. Her words give the film its mystical heart, commenting on the fateful folly with love and admiration for the surreal.
Through what may seem like an irreverent path, Inherent Vice, which opens Friday, Jan. 9, captures many of the pertinent ideas and contradictions that connect its time period with our own. The blatant disregard for civil rights perpetrated in comedic fashion by Josh Brolin's bullish cop would be outrageous if they weren't rooted in a disturbing insecurity and doubt of the male warrior ego that still rears its ugly head to this day. Taking a cue from Altman's The Long Goodbye and Polanski's Chinatown, the film exposes the extent to which white politicians wield power in order to control the lower classes.
Yet Inherent Vice doesn't condone revenge or rebellion. It suggests, rather bravely, that redemption and friendship hold more weight than money and influence. Anderson's whimsical, offbeat detective yarn stands up to the system by blowing a gigantic plume of smoky positive energy right back in its face, hoping the contact high will make a difference.