Inherent Vice’ is an entertaining enigma

Katherine Waterston and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice.

Three and a half stars

Inherent Vice Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R. Opens Friday.

For most filmmakers, adapting a novel by notoriously inscrutable author Thomas Pynchon would be a serious upgrade in ambition, but for Paul Thomas Anderson, his film version of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a step back from the grandiose, operatic movies he’s made in recent years. Like his 2002 Adam Sandler vehicle Punch-Drunk Love, which followed sprawling epics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Vice is a goofy, lighthearted lark to contrast with the booming seriousness of There Will Be Blood and The Master.

That’s not to say Vice isn’t ambitious in its own way, though. Its labyrinthine plot may operate on what appear to be relatively low stakes, and its hero may spend most of his time stoned and befuddled, but the story of Southern California private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and his investigation into the disappearance of a real estate mogul (among many, many other things) is also a heady meditation on the end of 1960s counterculture and its co-option by the establishment. Set in 1970, Vice contrasts stoner beach bum Doc with his rival/ally in the LAPD, a square-jawed, crew-cut lawman known as Bigfoot (Josh Brolin).

The movie’s ridiculously complex story is not exactly easy to follow, but its incomprehensibility is part of the point, as Doc, virtually never without a joint in his hand, drifts from one unlikely scenario to the next, mostly just sitting back as various schemes move into place around him. As Bigfoot and others constantly berate him for his hippie lifestyle, he proves himself to be the most competent player in a game he doesn’t completely understand, coming out on top despite not being entirely sure where the top is.

Anderson has cited the parody team of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker (Airplane!, The Naked Gun) and stoner godfathers Cheech and Chong as influences, but the humor is generally less wacky than those touchstones would suggest. Robert Altman’s 1973 Raymond Chandler reimagining The Long Goodbye and the Coen brothers’ noir comedy The Big Lebowski (both set in the same seedy, sunny Los Angeles) are more obvious influences, and even (or especially) when it’s completely baffling, Vice is frequently very funny. Anderson brings in a cavalcade of stars to play minor characters with names like Sauncho Smilax and Rudy Blatnoyd, and Phoenix ties it all together with a wide-eyed but canny performance. At close to two and a half hours, Vice is a little too long and meandering for what amounts to a shaggy-dog story, but its weird, unexpected digressions often provide its greatest rewards.

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