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Movie Review

In ‘Inherent Vice,’ Phoenix is a shaggy PI

Joaquin Phoenix (pictured here with Owen Wilson) plays a private eye in “Inherent Vice.”
Joaquin Phoenix (pictured here with Owen Wilson) plays a private eye in “Inherent Vice.” Wilson Webb

‘Inherent Vice” is an LA detective story that has been twice filtered, first through the contact-high sensibilities of novelist Thomas Pynchon (it’s the first of his books to make it onto film) and then through the misterioso moviemaking skills of Paul Thomas Anderson. Master obscurantists, both of them, as anyone knows who has fought his or her way through either Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973) or Anderson’s “The Master” (2012). Yet each man, in his way, has a knack for illuminating the dark, pulpy nub of things — the malaise, the grim truths, that can be glimpsed beneath our American everyday like a leviathan beneath the waves. The new movie just lets one artist speak in the voice of another.

Josh Brolin.
Josh Brolin.Karen Ballard

Literally, at times. “Inherent Vice” is probably Pynchon’s most comic novel, with its perpetually stoned hippie private eye, Larry “Doc” Sportello — played in the film by a mutton-chopped Joaquin Phoenix — tooling around 1970 Los Angeles trying to get to the bottom of a bottomless case. The novelist updates the punchy argot of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett for the dawning Me Decade, and in the early scenes of “Inherent Vice” Anderson seems to have photocopied the pages onto the screen, keeping intact the wayward locutions of Shasta Fay Hepworth as she tells Doc, “Is, they want me in on it.”

Shasta Fay is this story’s version of a film noir shady lady, but it’s 1970, so she’s a hippie chick and it’s more of a film paisley. Doc’s ex-girlfriend, she’s currently mixed up with a powerful real estate mogul (Eric Roberts), his wife (Serena Scott Thomas), the wife’s boyfriend (Andrew Simpson), and a geometrically escalating series of characters and charlatans. Shasta Fay is played by Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter) in a performance that seems beach-bunny ordinary at first but that gradually acquires layers of wisdom and sadness. By the end of 2½ zigzagging hours of “Inherent Vice” she seems weighed down with unspeakable grief, as though she has looked across the coming decades and seen what’s slouching in.

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Anderson initially gives the book’s third-person narration over to the minor character Sortilège (alt-rock harpist Joanna Newsom), an astrologer-mystic at the local sprouts bar, and he lets cinematographer Robert Elswit paint the screen in beautiful, period-appropriate pastels. Then he just lets the crazies come out of the woodwork: a neo-Nazi biker (Keith Jardine) and a Black Power ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams), Owen Wilson as a surfer-dude saxophonist who’s supposed to be dead but isn’t, Benicio del Toro as a hipster lawyer, Reese Witherspoon as a strait-laced assistant looking to get unlaced, a frick-and-frack pair of federal agents named Flatweed and Borderline (Sam Jaeger and Timothy Simons), a runaway heiress named Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse) — Pynchon’s names are a thing of wonder — and a random sexual free spirit (Hong Chau) or three (Belladonna, Yvette Yates).

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It’s the kind of movie where a door will pop open to reveal Martin Short as a coke-addled mobbed-up dentist, where Maya Rudolph (a.k.a. Mrs. P. T. Anderson) sits behind the reception desk, and where Josh Brolin can own every scene he’s in as Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, LAPD detective, part-time “Adam-12” extra, and the growling, flat-topped devil on Doc’s shoulder. Brolin plays the part like Jack Webb of “Dragnet” having a massive freak-out — a paradox, and that’s the point — and I don’t know that a movie has given me as much joy recently as in the scene in which Bigfoot sits at a diner counter barking for more Swedish pancakes in Japanese.

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Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay and Joaquin Phoenix as Doc in ”Inherent Vice.”
Katherine Waterson as Shasta Fay and Joaquin Phoenix as Doc in ”Inherent Vice.”Warner Bros.

After a while, you may suspect that things aren’t adding up. Later still, you begin to realize they may never add up. A shadowy criminal enterprise named The Golden Fang seems to be behind everything — or maybe it’s a boat, or a downtown high-rise in the shape of a tooth. The Fang is the hub of a web of malfeasance that takes in the FBI, the LAPD, the dentist, the real estate mogul, and onward and upward; there are those who get sucked in, like Shasta Fay, and come out bruised and knowing, and there are those, like Doc and us, condemned to peer in through the frosted glass and guess at the shapes we see. It all connects, yet none of it makes sense, and if that isn’t a perfect paranoid road map to our own authoritarian anxieties, show me a better one.

“Inherent Vice” can be a haul, even with Phoenix giving one of his most cheerful performances and a soundtrack exquisitely balanced between beach-apocalypse oldies (the Marketts, Neil Young) and Jonny Greenwood’s swirling, “Vertigo”-tinged score. I confess to experiencing a lingering frustration on first exposure, owing to the part of my brain that, like most of us, prefers things explained, tied up, filed away. That dissatisfaction was dispelled by a second viewing, in which the pieces of this eulogy for the 1960s, the last gasp of our naivete, fell together and apart in subterranean patterns whose pull felt stronger than narrative. Anderson moves further from conventional storytelling with each new film, and closer to something more intuitive, more damning, more true. He hasn’t made it there yet. God help us when he does.

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Joaquin Phoenix (left) and Josh Brolin (second from left).
Joaquin Phoenix (left) and Josh Brolin (second from left).Wilson Webb

But I’m glad I read the book, too, for the parts Anderson couldn’t fit in, like a funny-scary side trip to Las Vegas or the brief scenes of a repo-man acquaintance of Doc’s accessing an early computer network called ARPANet, which has more information than a million Sam Spades and will someday become the Internet. (Already we are being watched.) For a climactic sex scene that is playfully carnal in the book but creepy, exploitative, and powerful in the movie. And for Pynchon’s words, words, words, which even Anderson, for all his gifts, can’t transmute into 100 percent cinematic gold.

Toward the end of the novel, we read, “[Doc] woke up into this particular season of onshore fogs and the unnatural rumblings of jets taking off and landing at LAX all night long, as if some hand at a control board had pushed the bass to an unexpected level, and he found the Indian bedspread on the couch where he crashed running red and orange dye from what could only be his tears.” Only in the unfathomable eyes of Waterston’s Shasta Fay do we get a sense of what he’s crying for.

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Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.