Lazy story structure and arcless arc complement, rather than injure, Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrific version of sometimes Redwood Empire denizen Thomas Pynchon’s homage to detective fiction.
The mood of the film is far more important than its story. Inherent Vice serves as a threnody for the end of the 1960s, as the best defective-detective since Dude Lebowski tries to determine who is responsible for what.
Narration by a female psychic named Sortilège (NorCalharpist Joanna Newsom) provides a frame for the adventures of Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix looking like a young mutton-chopped, straw-hatted Neil Young. He’s sort of on the trail of a vanished developer named Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The detective learns the real estate bigwig has connections to Shasta (Katherine Waterston), the lovely whom Doc said farewell to years before.
For a time, Doc’s nemesis seems to be the furious yet telegenic “Renaissance cop” Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). The way Anderson reveals a friendship between the hippie-hating flattop and the passive stoner is one of the film’s surprises.
Inherent Vice isn’t a lavish recreation of 1970 L.A.; it takes place in cars, offices and other interiors where the walls barely keep out the ambient paranoia. Understanding the way this time-honored genre makes its own gravy, Anderson has Doc knocked cold to wake up somewhere else, and sends strangers into the room holding weapons. Many exotic women turn up to turn Doc around, including bad-girl Shasta, who whips up a memorable sex scene—in the end, what’s more erotic than a woman describing exactly what she wants?
A malign influence on all is a mysterious organization called “the Golden Fang,” perhaps still at large. Inherent Vice is a light film, but it leaves an impression that heavy films can’t.
‘Inherent Vice’ opens Jan. 9 at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. Special advance show Jan. 8 at 7pm. 707.522.0718.