Boogie Nights writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the 1970s in this story of a stoner private detective, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). An ex-girlfriend shows up with a convoluted story of a kidnapping, and before long, Doc is embroiled in a case that will see him cross paths with a plethora of Southern California's colourful characters. 

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One thing you have to understand is that you’ve entered during the middle of a conversation.

Some people have criticised Inherent Vice because it is a “not-so-funny” version of The Big Lebowski. A relationship between the two films is understandable, because Thomas Pynchon’s book is basically a riposte to the Coen Brothers film, which (amusingly) trivialises the idea of hidden networks uncovered by a stoner detective. If you conclude that either Pynchon or film director P.T. Anderson are so devoid of ideas they’d contemplate a Lebowski rip-off, you’re heading in the wrong direction. In all of Pynchon’s, often comic, novels, right back to his 1963 debut V, references to sinister networks and underground movements are abundant, before “the Dude” was even a twinkle in the Coen’s fraternal eyes.

Of course, the book is not the film. Pynchon’s serious critique of the conquest of the counter-culture movement is both present and intangible in Anderson’s politically neutered version. Furthermore, I spent a sizeable time while watching Anderson’s film wondering how I could follow it, if I hadn’t read the book. The novel is complicated enough, and Anderson – never one for one for brevity – packs a lot into the 148 minutes of this 1970s drug-laced detective story including unhinged events, paranoia and a lot of unexplained details. 

It’s such a fast-moving potpourri, that after a while – even to those who’ve read the book – it should become plain that coherence is not the point. Au contraire: incoherence is the film’s raison d’etre.

A quote that appears on the novel’s opening page (“Under the paving stones – the beach!”) Anderson aptly, if not very helpfully, places at the end of the credit roll. There the quote can be perceived as a reprimand: if you didn’t get the point, then watch the movie again! But let me save you the trouble: Anderson’s version of Inherent Vice is essentially a cautionary tale about the emotional dangers of drug use, using comedy and demonstration, rather than lectures and finger-wagging.

At the centre of this dope-fuelled vortex is Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective and heavy marijuana smoker who receives a visit from an ex-girlfriend named Shasta (Katherine Waterston), asking to help track down her main squeeze – a wealthy, married, property tycoon.  

In true detective style, Doc gets framed for a murder and renews his acquaintance with a square-jawed LAPD detective, Lt Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who lets Doc go in the hope that the stoner will lead him to bigger fish. Along the way, Doc takes on two more cases, both feeding into Shasta’s mission and both of which force our detective into encounters with bikies, Nazis, hookers, dentists (Martin Short flamboyantly channeling Phil Spector) and a rock star who has faked his own death (Owen Wilson channeling, unfortunately, Owen Wilson).

It’s a lot more complicated than that, but the crux of the matter is that Doc wouldn’t be able to explain it to you either. He lives in a world that is out of synch with everyone else and like the frazzled doper he is, Doc suspects conspiracy everywhere.

Not that Doc’s paranoid vision is mere illusion (though the film appears to imply at one point that the scenario is just a marijuana-fuelled reverie as a stoned Doc watches Adam 12 on TV.). But when he encounters real malevolence like a network of lies in the court system, or glimpses of the James Ellroy-like machinations of the LAPD, Doc is just too damned naive to really catch on.

As different as Bigfoot’s clean cut brute and Doc’s shaggy detective may appear to be, Anderson drives home on a couple of occasions (including a reprise of a Magnolia moment) that they are brothers of a sort, hooked on their own drugs, over-ruled by smarter women and victims of a system that is bigger than both of them. In one of several finales, the appetite of Bigfoot’s excess makes Doc cower and should induce a similar feeling in audiences. In another conclusion-ette, Anderson highlights Doc’s sadness. Like a modern replay of the famous ending of The Searchers, Doc is shown to be unfit for suburban civilisation because of his use of what Pynchon once called “that useful substance”. As useful as marijuana may have been to Pynchon the writer, it is emotionally crippling to this detective, who has limited access to his emotions. In a rare burst of energy, a sex scene between Doc and Shasta is powerful because it is so joyless and heartbreaking. But tragic as Doc is, it’s also the film’s crucial flaw. People may find Phoenix’s portrayal of Doc amusing and sometimes charming, but the detective is as emotionally inaccessible to audiences as the character is to himself.

The film gets in some of the book’s political observations, a few jibes against Richard Nixon, the FBI and the malevolent irony of a system that pushes both drugs and cures, so that we can be charged both coming and going. But it’s all safely presented as a stoner’s ramblings rather than visionary moments of clear sunshine poking through the totalitarian clouds. By the time they reach the film’s end, Pynchon fans may feel betrayed, but not half as much as those who signed up for a Seth Rogen stoner comedy or a “romancing the stoned” (to borrow Carrie Fisher’s phrase) copy of Lebowski’s Dude. Despite the film’s take on (excessive?) marijuana usage, Pynchon reportedly views Anderson’s adaptation favourably… but all novelists say that don’t they? Or maybe Pynchon quit smoking dope.